Picture yourself on an idyllic day in Golden Gate Park, sprawled on the grass with friends and watching locals and tourists pass you by on foot or wheel. Here, few people would refer to a gay person as “deviant” because of the social connotation of “perverted” that can accompany the word.
However, within the framework of sociology, “deviant” is a perfectly appropriate adjective.
The media has heavily criticized the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) in Ohio because of its course description for a class in its social work department. The Facebook group Franciscan Gay Alumni and Allies were offended that homosexuality was grouped with acts such as rape and murder in the description for a class on deviant behavior.
The alumni group’s press release expressed concern that “having this kind of viewpoint taught” will ill-prepare students for a career in human services. On the contrary, a sociologically sound viewpoint is precisely what social work students should learn in a university classroom. When entering the field, it is crucial to understand individuals whom society classifies as diverging from the norm — and the ways in which society reacts to these labels — so that they can be served most effectively.
One alumnus, Gregory Gronbacher, claimed the word “deviant” is not scientifically sound. However, in their well-intended zeal, the alumni failed to understand that in a sociological setting, the word refers to actions that are outside the social norm. “Deviant” can be colloquially used to stigmatize a behavior, but from an academic perspective, the term accurately describes the topics mentioned in the course description.
Gronbacher and his fellow alumni, in publicly demanding that FUS “stop contributing to the culture of…hate and ignorance,” have inadvertently revealed themselves to be the ones jumping to unfounded conclusions. Nothing in FUS’s course description or press release indicates hatred of any kind. Had the alumni done their research instead of reacting like an unstable compound of emotion, they would understand that the use of the term “deviant” is not a value judgment, but simply a sociological fact in the context of the course description.
In addition to including formally unsanctioned behavior like crime, many sociologists classify as deviant mental illness and, still, homosexuality. It remains outside the social norm of our country as a whole, as easy as this can be to forget inside the San Francisco bubble of tolerance.
Further accentuating the misunderstanding at hand Gronbacher asked, “If you’re a gay student at Franciscan University, how are you going to feel if you’re sitting in that class and they’re putting you in the same category as murderers?” With all due respect, Mr. Gronbacher, if you are a gay student at a conservative Catholic school in Ohio, it should come to no surprise that homosexuality is not within the wider societal norm, as flawed and unfair as that may be.