Assessing Deviant Behavior in the Context of Social Stratification, Coursework Example

According to Emile Durkheim, deviance serves a number of functional purposes in society, and is in fact both an important and necessary part of how society functions. In essence, Durkheim asserts that deviance provides a means by which the rest of society can measure its own norms. Deviance serves to affirm cultural values and norms, and helps to define moral boundaries (Macionis, 2012). Responses to deviance also help society bond together in their affirmation of the norms that restrict deviant behavior, while also helping to promote social change as some deviant behavior becomes acceptable through societal evolution (Macionis). Durkheim’s theory takes a largely structural-functional approach to understanding deviance, while other theories examine deviance through different perspectives. This paper will examine the use of marijuana and the ways that society is changing its views on the subject.

The use of marijuana and other illicit drugs has long been seen as deviant behavior by most of society. When considering the decision to smoke marijuana from a personal perspective I have a number of factors to weigh against each other. Marjuana use is still illegal at the federal level, though the use of medical marijuana is now legal at the state level in some states, and the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is now legal in Washington and Colorado (, n.d.). Changing attitudes about marijuana use have led to the changes in some laws, and these changes might be seen as evidence that Durkheim’s theories about deviance are applicable. Although the use of marijuana was considered by most of society to be deviant behavior, it appears that marijuana users have been able to help change many people’s attitudes about it over time. What was once deviant behavior is now acceptable by many people.

This does not mean that marijuana use is acceptable in every set of circumstances. If I chose to smoke marijuana, I would still have to consider the fact that it is illegal in most states, and is also illegal at the federal level. Making the decision to smoke marijuana would come with considerable legal risks, and I am not entirely sure that I would feel comfortable taking those risks, even if I happened to be in a situation where it was legal for me to use it. Even if I did decide to smoke marijuana after considering the legal risks, there are also social factors and issues to consider which could also have a significant impact on my decision about whether or not to use it.

These social factors include what sorts of social groups might or might not find marijuana use acceptable. Younger people are more likely to condone marijuana use than members of older generations (Lemstra et al, 2008). So if I chose to smoke marijuana with a group of young college students who were my friends, and I knew they did not have a problem with marijuana use, I would very likely feel more comfortable in that situation than I would about smoking marijuana around a group of older people, or some other social group that I knew did not approve of its use. It is clear to me, as I consider these different scenarios and situations, that what is considered deviant behavior by one social group may not be considered deviant behavior by another group.

The issues of potential sanctions and rewards associated with marijuana use would also vary depending on the context, and depending on which social group was handing out those rewards and punishments. If I was smoking marijuana around or with a group of people who approved of it or who were also smoking, the potential rewards might include the acceptance and approval of peers, which can be a strong motivator for behavior. If I was smoking marijuana around a group of people who did not approve of marijuana use, I would likely be stigmatized and labeled a deviant. The potential punishments could be severe, in fact, if members of the group decided to report me to law enforcement for my deviant behavior.

When examining the issue of deviant behavior, it is sometimes helpful to consider it in the context of social stratification. Social stratification can be influenced or defined by a number of factors; one of these is socio-economic status (SES). People of lower SES are more likely to approve of the use of marijuana or to use marijuana than people of higher SES (Lemstra et al). Age range can also be used as a measure of social stratification, especially in the context of behaviors that are considered acceptable by one age group but are considered deviant by other age groups. One recent study showed that 50% of U.S. 12th graders had tried marijuana and 75% had tried alcohol (Clark and Loheac, 2007).  It is clear that many people in this age range find marijuana use acceptable, so among many of this group of people marijuana use would not be viewed as deviant behavior.

Along with structural-functional theory, social-conflict theory offers a way to understand deviant behavior. In this context, those who are labeled as deviant are often those who do not have much social power (Macionis). In this theory, social norms are largely based on the needs and interests of those who do have power, such as those of higher SES (Macionis). So those who have higher SES may be more likely to get away with behaviors that would be labeled as deviant if they were exhibited by those with lower SES or less social power. I am not a member of the high SES sector of social stratification; if I was, I might be less concerned in some situations about violating certain norms. Smoking marijuana, for example, comes with certain legal risks, but if I was from a higher SES I may be less likely to run into trouble with the law over smoking it. If I did have trouble with the law, I might also have a better chance of paying for a good attorney and be less likely to get a harsh sentence in court than I would as a member of my actual SES.

I do not know how a difference in gender would affect me if I got into trouble regarding marijuana, but there are reports that African-Americans are more likely to be prosecuted for marijuana use than white people are. All these different factors make it clear that social stratification plays an important role in determining what is considered to be deviant behavior and in determining what rewards or punishments are associated with deviant behaviors.


Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests | American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Clark, A. E., & Loheac, Y. (2007). “It wasn’t me, it was them!” Social influence in risky behavior by adolescents. Journal of Health Economics , 26(4), 763-784.

Lemstra, M., Bennett, N., Neudorf, C., Kunst, A., & Nannapaneni, U. (2008). A Meta-analysis of Marijuana and Alcohol Use by Socio-economic Status in Adolescents Aged 10-15 Years. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 99(3), 172-177.

Macionis, J. J. (2012). Sociology (14th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall.