Legal Behaviour: Norm and Deviation

Silvia Kaugia
pp. 7-13

Human society is a complicated system in which it would be impossible to orient oneself without behavioural norms which have been accepted by the majority. Different social norms which reflect typical social relationships and ties and which are characteristic of a majority of the members of a specific social group or a society as a whole are the regulators of a person's social behaviour.

A social behavioural norm must be viewed as a part of the structure of society, which exists at the macro level of that structure and regulates the behaviour of people at the micro level. The existence of such a rule of behaviour can be considered if both the person himself or herself as well as other members of society have the right to control his or her behaviour.

There is both an objective and a subjective component to actual behaviour. In the objective sense, a behavioural norm manifests itself in peoples' specific acts, the form and substance of which conform to society's interests and requirements. In the subjective sense, a behavioural norm becomes a part of peoples' consciousness as a certain model of behaviour, incorporating therein to a greater or lesser extent their understanding of societal values and the social meaning of their own actions. This model plays a significant role in the motivation of behaviour. All social norms are characteristic of society.

The most important characteristics of any social norm are: 1) usefulness (society's need); 2) mandatoriness; and 3) factual realisation in the behaviour of individuals. In connection with the usefulness of a social norm, one or another social norm may be useful to specific social groups, while at the same time being neutral or even harmful with respect to others. With respect to the usefulness of a specific norm, its role in time and space must always be considered. Thus, for a social norm to conform to the principle of usefulness, it must be correctly oriented and differentiated in time, space and to the intended addressee, that is, the social groups or individuals, and change in accordance with changes in people's living conditions.1 Failure to take this into consideration will reduce the effectiveness of every social norm, until it loses its importance entirely in the eyes of the members of society. This situation directly causes deviant behaviour, since despite the existence of required norms, people no longer abide by them, which means that such norms are left unrealised in the behaviour of individuals.

The most widely known categories of social norms are legal norms, moral norms, commonly accepted norms and corporate or associational norms, the objective of which is to regulate specific types of social relationships. Legal norms, which are the means for creating order in human behaviour, form the normative basis for law and order.2

Many normative systems and subsystems exist simultaneously in a complicated social system. Therefore, it is impossible to give an unequivocal evaluation as to whether a specific behaviour is correct or incorrect. Since all social norms are evaluative, their deviations are also evaluative and different social structures or institutions, as well as individuals can give their evaluations. If the evaluation of a specific act is positive, then the act is considered to be in conformity with the expectations of the appropriate norm.

There is not always a direct and immediate relationship between normative behaviour and the norm. A norm is the foundational basis for normative behaviour. The purpose of legal norms is to provide the judicial means by which it is possible to enforce required behaviour.

There are many special traits which are peculiar to a legal norm. A legal norm:

1) contains a description of the attributes of the required behaviour (the so-called material content of the legal norm);

2) indicates the state's position with regard to the respective behavioural model and prescribes, permits or prohibits the described behaviour; and

3) fixes the rights and obligations of the legal subject in its disposition and fixes the actions of the corresponding state organs with respect to offenders in its sanctions.3

The axiomatic effect of a legal norm consists of its influence over a person's beliefs, orientation toward the world, feelings and emotions. Naturally, its value component is tied to communication because the conception of a social value which is comprised of law may be acquired or passed on only through channels of communication. Every branch of law, through specific institutions, creates certain social values which become principles of law (for example, the ideas of justice and freedom). A legal norm in its value sense influences human behaviour differently than in its informational sense; its informational influence is more specific than its influence as a value. The legal norm as a value shows a direction for action, creates a basis for legal behaviour, shapes a person's main positions and helps to shape one’s system of values.

In the case of social deviations, the digression from at least one group of social norms is at issue. Social norms may or may not be fixed in writing, but they always express a certain assessment. A deviation is that which the dominant societal understanding considers a deviation.

No behavioural act is deviant, so to speak, in and of itself. In order for one or another act to be called deviant, it must be declared by society to be deviant. Such a “declaration” is derived from the values of a society's institutions or social groups.

In order to adequately perceive objective reality and effectively act within it, an individual must acquire the norms and values of the social environment which surrounds him or her and get into that environment to essentially become one with it, or in other words, become socialised.

The socialisation of an individual already begins in his or her early childhood at which time his or her attitudes are formed in connection with all that surrounds him or her. This facet of the socialisation process seems to be especially important in the shaping of deviant behaviour.

The shaping of attitudes is a psychological process in which two poles are decisive: 1) the independent shaping of the subject, during which the individual identifies with other people who surround him or her (he or she accepts as his or her own the value evaluations, norms and ideas of others, and the individual's emotional identification with people who surround him or her occurs) and during which individuals who serve as examples are imprinted upon him or her; and 2) the activities which help to shape the individual's attitudes in the desired direction (teaching, guidance). Social norms and values proceed through the mediation of the two poles “from the outside inward”. A person acquires his or her attitudinal structure which is shaped as the direct result of the influence of objective reality; he or she forms in his or her own time in a specific social environment and acquires an attitudinal structure which allows him or her to exist and act in that environment.4

The socialisation of an individual may progress more or less successfully. Conflict situations may occur between the individual and the environment which surrounds him or her during the socialisation process. The result may be the breaking of established behavioural norms. Unlawful behaviour gives proof to the fact that there is some sort of defect in the interaction between the individual and the social environment. The interpretation of such behaviour as unlawful is justified only in cases in which the legal prohibition in the society comprises an indivisible part of the prevailing culture and derogation therefrom is directed against vitally important and valuable principles and aspects of that culture.5

The more complicated a social system is, the more different types of human behaviour there will be and the more opportunity there will be for the development of conflict situations between an individual and the society which establishes social norms.

Deviant behaviour has individual and social sources which are closely tied with each other: society influences the behaviour of individuals, while at the same time the society has been created and shaped by those same individuals. The mutual dependency between society and individuals is achieved through the mediation of human consciousness.6

Just as no act is deviant in and of itself, neither is one or another form of behaviour alone dictated by social and economic factors. Behaviour depends upon a person's consciousness which forms the subjective psychological side of antisocial behaviour. A person's behaviour develops in accordance with a specific type of society. If within a certain micro-environment certain forms of behaviour begin to be repeated by persons, a social type of behaviour can be identified with certainty. A social type is represented by a personality with individual characteristics and the unity of the typical elements of the social environment around him or her. From the perspective of social psychology, the most important elements of the social environment are those aspects, positions and evaluations which society offers to the individual. The embodiment in reality of the unity of the environment and the individual is found in the behaviour of the individual because it is precisely in the behavioural act that the elements of the social environment and the individual unite.

A specific society does not influence each person's psyche in a similar manner and in the same direction. The different versions of existing behaviour within a society are more or less available to all persons who live there. Despite the fact that the starting position for all persons in a society is not equal (for example, different levels of education, abilities, economic and social status, etc.) depending on the stratification system which has developed in a given society, a person always has the opportunity to choose between normative and deviant behaviour. Whether he or she chooses one or the other variety of behaviour depends upon many human psychological traits, but also upon factors which comprise the aggregated whole of factors which have shaped a specific individual's psyche.

In choosing a version of behaviour, an individual will decide in favour of a version or versions which will assist him or her to achieve the individual’s goals which have been established. It is expected that a person who has developed normally will harmonise his or her activity in the pursuit of fulfiling his or her needs with the rules of life and norms established by society. From this perspective, the value of norms is that they assist in differentiating for society desirable and undesirable (including criminal) versions of behaviour. In choosing a version of behaviour, a person primarily uses as a basis two intellectual-rational approaches: 1) he or she realises only those goals which for him or her represent worth; and 2) he or she chooses the version of behaviour which will most likely result in achieving the established goal.7 The choice of a version of behaviour also depends on the specific social conditions and personal characteristics of the population.

Non-normative behaviour primarily means behaviour which is not regulated by norms and, secondarily, behaviour which is contradictory to norms. In both instances, an individual proceeds not from a pre-existing behavioural model, but determines and realises an independent version of behaviour. The possibility for non-normative behaviour is conditioned upon the fact that human consciousness is capable of going beyond every stereotype and developing new versions of behaviour which, from the perspective of society, may be positive or negative. Thus, non-normative behaviour is not always antisocial. Positive non-normative behaviour is different from negative non-normative behaviour with respect to its essential creative activity. The former may acquire widespread influence in society and may itself become a social norm. Negative non-normative behaviour (especially criminal activity, alcoholism, addiction to narcotics, etc.) inhibits the development of society and damages its interests.

There is a strong mutual connection between negative non-normative behaviour and the specific social environment, in that, the widespread dissemination of antisocial behaviour indicates the existing weak points in society and shows which specific spheres of life require heightened attention to eliminate the conflict which is occurring between the social needs of the population and the possibilities for satisfying them. On the other hand, a high level of crime (as is the case with a great number of other antisocial acts) weakens the structure of society by which the solution to the problems which have been created becomes increasingly more difficult.

This phenomenon is especially characteristic of societies in which there has been a sharp jump in historical development in the form of a change in the socio-economic structure. When such a jump occurs, it brings about a transition period in society in which many problems are without a solution and there is an absence of structures or institutions through which the members of society can solve the newly created problems and satisfy their needs. Such a situation creates favourable conditions for the proliferation of deviant behaviour (including crime).

Social norms may be adopted at the level of learning, relationships and attitudes, and behavioural tendencies. A deviation may occur at all three levels: a person may know the Criminal Code perfectly and thus, know which acts are punishable as crimes, but nevertheless commit an offence; a person may scorn criminals, but this does not prevent the person from committing unlawful acts himself or herself; and finally, a deviation may manifest itself in a person's behaviour. However, a person is not punished for a deviation in his or her thoughts (knowledge), relationships or attitudes, but only for deviant behaviour.

On the societal level, no transition from one norm to another can be achieved without the creation of “corrected” phenomena, attitudes, traditions, understandings or tendencies (the so-called remainder phenomena) from the society's last stage of development and, the creation of phenomena which do not yet “fit” into the new, newly created society (for example, the mechanical transfer of the experience of other developed countries to a younger country), the adaptation of which to the corresponding social environment takes time because in the given stage of development they do not meld into the structure of society. Thus, those phenomena are not put into practice, but in the society are merely left over and exist in reserve.

Structural changes which are acting on a society usually result in antisocial (including unlawful) behaviour which has reached a new stage of development. This type of behaviour may begin manifesting itself in ways never seen before or which, for that society, were previously not widespread. These processes also bring with them certain shifts in the legal consciousness of different groups in the population.

The structure of an individual's legal consciousness includes: 1) knowledge and attitudes; 2) behavioural tendencies; and 3) the individual’s attitude toward social welfare. All three components are tightly intertwined and their extent depends on the socialisation of the individual.

With respect to minors, an especially important part is played by their parents' home, from which they receive the foundation upon which their developing system of knowledge, attitudes, relationships, value evaluations, etc., is established for their entire lives. The family is also the institution which becomes decisive in shaping the social status of a young person.

Currently, a study dealing with the legal consciousness of adolescents is underway. It was begun in 1995 on the initiative of the Tartu Association of Legal and Social Psychologists (Grant No. 2169). Since this concerns a repeat study which is based on a concept that was developed in 1974 by the Tartu State University Criminology Laboratory and whose first stage8 was conducted during the years 1974-1977, it is possible to compare the level of legal consciousness of present-day youth with the same contingent of society from the Soviet period.

Behavioural tendencies most accurately characterise legal consciousness; knowledge, attitudes and relationships influence behaviour through behavioural tendencies. Since the other components of the structure of legal consciousness, that is, knowledge and attitudes, and one’s attitude toward social welfare, have been studied to a greater extent than behavioural tendencies, this article describes the more essential changes in the behavioural tendencies of Estonian adolescents which have taken place over the last couple of decades.

The respondents in the ongoing study are 15-18 year old adolescents whose social position is rather different from each other and include: 1) high school students who after graduation have realistic chances of continuing their studies in institutions of higher learning and the majority of whom are supposedly the offspring of moderately successful, middle class families; 2) trade school students, whose goal is to acquire the profession of a skilled worker who after graduation wish to find work in their field and the majority of whom come primarily from working class families who currently have a difficult time managing on their income; and 3) offenders, that is, individuals who have been convicted of a crime (in this study, the youths in this group who were questioned are inmates of the Viljandi Reformatory and the students of the Kaagvere Special School). The last group concerns youths who are obviously socially disturbed, who have not been able to acquire generally established social norms and whose successful return to society is extremely complicated considering the rapid social changes occurring in present-day Estonia, which unfortunately favour only successful and wealthy individuals. Obviously, one of the primary reasons that these youths are in these detention institutions is their complicated home situation, where their parents, themselves caught in the “gears of life”, have not been able to assist their children to remain on the narrow path of conforming behaviour.

The empirical indicators of a subject's system of values were evaluations, and the emotions and behavioural acts which are tied to them, which as a whole indicate the person's behavioural tendencies. In order to discover the behavioural tendencies of the youths in this study, the assignments given in the following cases were used, which upon analysis were divided into two categories:

1) evaluation of the behaviour of others; and

2) prediction of one's own behaviour in a particular situation.

The first case is as follows:

Fifteen year old Jaan's parents obtained an apartment in a new building. When his father began to build shelves in the basement, it became clear that there were not enough boards to complete the project. Having heard of his father's problem, Jaan went with a friend at night to a nearby construction depot and took the necessary boards.

Comparing the youths' attitudes toward theft, present-day youths have a rather favourable attitude toward this type of crime (see Table 1). It is also noteworthy that this statement holds true for all three of the groups studied. The proportion of youths who considered the described activity in this case as a crime decreased noticeably from 41.1% in 1975 to 29% in 1995. Obviously, a great percentage of young people have adopted for themselves the widespread belief that in present-day Estonian society, the most important thing is gaining personal wealth, even by illegal means, if necessary.

An interesting tendency appears on the basis of the data presented in Table 2. In 1975, 88.2% of the youths questioned believed that their fathers would have approved of the act described in the case and 11.9% would have condemned the act. In 1995, the corresponding percentages are 10% and 18%. Unfortunately, the list of questions in the comparative studies contain some differences (there were more possible answers in the 1995 questionnaire). Considering that the more severe answer possibilities on the scale have gathered a comparatively greater percentage of the responses, it can be concluded that in the opinion of the youths, their parents are more in conformity than they are themselves.

The second case is as follows:

A youth began bothering an unfamiliar girl. When the girl asked to be left in peace, the youth insulted her. The girl slapped the youth in the face, upon which the youth hit the girl.

Table 1 How would you evaluate the behaviour of Jaan and his friend? (in %)

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Understandable in the given instance 1975 12.1 14.5 14.9 13.5
^ ^ 1995 26.2 39.4 63.1 35.0,
2. Shameful 1975 46.1 44.0 37.3 45.3
^ ^ 1995 42.1 36.5 18.4 36.0
3. Crime (what kind?) 1975 41.2 41.5 47.8 41.5
^ ^ 1995 31.7 24.0 18.5 29.0

From the data above, the percentage of youths who believe that the actions of the girl constitute a crime has increased, while at the same time more youths than previously believe that the actions of the young man were understandable in the given instance. Only 21% of those questioned evaluated the actions of the young man as a crime compared to 24.5% by the earlier group.

Table 2 Imagine for a moment that you had behaved in the same manner as Jaan.
In that case, how do you think your father would have behaved? (in %)

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Unanswered, cannot say 1975
^ ^ 1995 25.0
2. Would have approved of act 1975 87.0 91.0 88.0 88.2
^ ^ 1995 13.2 18.7 14.9 10.0
3. Would not have reacted at all 1975
^ ^ 1995 5.3 2.7 3.1 4.0
4. Would have condemned the act 1975 12.9 9.0 11.2 11.9
^ ^ 1995 32.5 18.7 16.2 18.0
5. Would have ordered that the boards be returned 1975
^ ^ 1995 26.3 16.0 23.8 18.0
6. Would have punished 1975
^ ^ 1995 8.8 8.0 12.7 7.0
7. Other (many actions; no father; would have returned boards himself) 1975
^ ^ 1995 14.0 36.0 29.0 18.0

Table 3 How do you evaluate the girl's behaviour? (in %)

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Understandable in the given instance 1975 92.4 87.4 83.2 90.2
^ ^ 1995 88.2 93.3 84.2 89.0
2. Shameful 1975 5.9 10.1 9.6 8.0
^ ^ 1995 9.7 3.8 8.6 7.0
3. Crime (what kind?) 1975 1.7 2.5 6.6 1.9
^ ^ 1995 2.1 2.9 7.2 4.0

The third case, a description of an overt theft, is as follows:

Eighth grade student Maie was riding home from school on a bus overflowing with people. Suddenly, she saw an unknown man secretly take a purse from a baggage rack and place it into his pocket.

From the data in Table 5, the relative share of youths who believe it is more proper not to react to the theft has noticeably increased. On that question, the offenders group sticks out in that the behaviour was favoured by 2.9% in 1975 compared to 45.5% in 1995 of those questioned. The relative share of high school students who approved of this behaviour also grew. The most correct behaviour was considered to be informing the victim of the incident (the owner of the purse) so that he or she could do something to secure the return of his or her property.

Comparing Tables 5 and 6 it becomes obvious that if the youth had been a witness to the crime described, he or she would not have acted as he or she recommended to Maie. For example, according to the 1995 study, only 29% of those questioned would have informed the victim of the perpetrated crime compared to 37.2% in 1975.

On the basis of Table 6, it also appears that the prestige of the police has declined in comparison to the Soviet militia. Only 2% of those questioned would have informed the police of the incident, although Maie should have informed the police in the opinion of 4% of the respondents. The given state of affairs is a graphic example of the fact that the evaluation of the behaviour of others (recommendations to Maie) differ from the respondents' own behavioural tendencies.

The number of youths who admitted that in the described situation they would have continued riding without taking any action noticeably increased from 4.1% in 1975 to 11% in 1995.

Table 4 How do you evaluate the behaviour of the youth? (in %)

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Understandable in the given instance 1975 2.7 5.1 10.3 3.7
^ ^ 1995 4.2 21.9 6.0
2. Shameful 1975 71.5 72.0 64.7 71.7
^ ^ 1995 74.3 74.8 65.0 73.0
3. Crime (what kind?) 1975 25.8 22.9 25.0 24.5
^ ^ 1995 21.5 25.2 13.0 21.0

Table 5 In your opinion, how should Maie have acted in the given situation? (in %)

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Continue riding without paying attention to what happened 1975 1.7 2.2 2.9 1.8
^ ^ 1995 3.5 1.9 45.5 8.0
2. Speak to her parents about the incident on the bus when she gets home 1975 0.7 0.4 0.7 0.4
^ ^ 1995 3.5 1.9 1.4 3.0
3. Inform the police about the incident at the earliest opportunity 1975 3.1 3.2 5.1 2.7
^ ^ 1995 1.4 5.8 2.8 4.0
4. While still on the bus, ask the man who took the purse to return it 1975 19.1 21.2 33.1 19.2
^ ^ 1995 11.8 12.5 9.7 12.0
5. Immediately tell the owner of the purse who took it 1975 40.1 46.0 36.8 41.3
^ ^ 1995 43.1 50.0 25.1 43.0
6. Immediately inform fellow passengers of the incident 1975 34.5 26.3 20.6 33.7
^ ^ 1995 34.1 24.0 12.5 27.0
7. Other 1975 0.7 0.7 0.7 0.8
^ ^ 1995 2.8 3.8 2.9 3.0

Table 6 How would you have behaved in Maie's place?

No. Evaluation Year Group + + Total
^ ^ ^ High School Students Trade School Students Offenders ^
1. Unanswered cannot say 1975
^ ^ 1995 13.0
2. Continue riding without taking any action 1975 3.6 4.3 10.4 4.1
^ ^ 1995 10.8 10.0 26.6 11.0
3. Tell parents about the incident at home 1975 1.0 0.9 0.8 0.8
^ ^ 1995 3.1 4.1 4.8 2.0
4. Inform police about the incident at the first opportunity 1975 1.9 3.0 4.0 2.5
^ ^ 1995 0.8 3.3 3.0 2.0
5. Ask the person who took the purse to immediately put it back 1975 15.8 21.2 24.8 18.0
^ ^ 1995 10.0 14.4 13.6 10.0
6. Tell the owner of the purse that it was taken and who took it 1975 37.5 41.6 34.4 37.2
^ ^ 1995 31.5 37.8 21.5 29.0
7. Immediately inform fellow passengers of the incident 1975 33.0 24.7 16.8 31.0
^ ^ 1995 18.5 21.1 9.1 16.0
8. Other 1975 7.2 4.3 8.8 6.3
^ ^ 1995 18.5 10.0 18.1 13.0
9. Several actions 1975
^ ^ 1995 6.9 2.2 3.0 4.0

On the basis of these case studies, it can be concluded that young people prefer to watch from the sidelines rather than get directly involved in obstructing lawbreaking. The active protection of law and order has declined and the attitude toward those who do protect law and order is reprehensible. Thus, from the 1995 data of Table 6, only 16% of those questioned would have informed their fellow passengers of the committed theft, while in the 1975 study, the percentage was 31%.

When a developing society has not yet stabilised, people's (including young people's) consciousness of the law is also malformed. Great social changes such as a transition to a market economy results in a need for a structure of values which corresponds to the new conditions. A sick and weak society causes aberrations in the consciousness of its members, which is unarguably an influential factor in deviant behaviour.

To combat antisocial phenomena, it is necessary to create and develop a strong system of social norms in the society, which in turn creates a need for well-functioning social institutions and, above all, to combat the social phenomena which are the causes of deviant behaviour.


1 Sotsial’nye otkloneniya (Moscow: Yurid. lit. 1989) at 74.
2 R. Narits, Õiguse entsüklopeedia - õpik Tartu Ülikooli õigusteaduskonna üliõpilastele (Legal Encyclopedia: Textbook for Students of the University of Tartu Faculty of Law), (Tartu: 1995) at 45.
3 Sotsial’nye otkloneniya (Moscow: Yurid. lit. 1989) at 76.
4 H. Hiebsch & M. Vorwerg, Sozialpsychologie, (Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1980) at 231.
5 A. M. Yakovlev, Individual’naya profilaktika prestupnogo povedeniya (Gor’kiy: Gor’k. vysh. shkola MVD SSSR, 1977) at 60.
6 V. N. Kudryavtsev, A. B. Saharov, Otsenka sistemy politiki bor’by s prestupnost’yu (Belgrad. b. i., 1973) at 11.
7 H.-D. Schmidt & E. Kasielke, Psychologie und Rechtspraxis. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Jugendpsychologischen Begutachtung, (Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1966) at 142.
8 Study “Noorte õigusliku kasvatuse kanalid ja efektiivsus (kriminoloogilisi aspekte)” (Channels for Lawful Discipline of Youth and Their Effectiveness (Criminological Aspects), (Tartu: 1977).