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From Socially Acceptable to Social Deviant Behavior

Sometimes Addiction is Actually About Fitting In


Updated May 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Four young women sitting in bar with cocktails, making toast, smiling
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The stereotype of someone with an addiction is a social deviant -- someone who breaks the accepted norms of human behavior. But this isn't always the case.

Certainly, some addictive behaviors are considered socially unacceptable, and therefore the person doing them can be considered a social deviant. Heroin use, for example, is quite rare in the general population, and would be considered quite shocking in most social circumstances. However, in communities and sub-cultures where heroin use is common, it is not really socially deviant to take heroin. If your parents took it, and your friends and neighbours 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 strata of society, including the highest classes. Furthermore, you can actually ostracize yourself by not drinking alcohol in some social situations where it is expected.

One way of distinguishing between the different kinds of behavior that are included in the addictions guidesite concerns whether they are perceived as socially acceptable or socially deviant behavior. 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 also a large grey 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.

The table 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. 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 thirty years ago.

The Continuum of Social Acceptability

Social Acceptability
Addictive Behavior Socially Deviant Socially Problematic Socially Acceptable
Alcoholism Binge drinking Occasional/social drinking
Underage drinking Public drunkenness
Drinking at the wrong time/place Drinking in "drinking establishments"
Illegal drug use Methadone maintenance
Medical marijuana
Painkiller over-use 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
Hard core pornography
Sexual harrassment
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