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Deviance in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Essay

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Updated: Feb 6th, 2019

The society has several ways of defining deviance and deviant characters. Although deviance is a simple term, several social scholars have come up with different theories that help in defining it. These theories can be put into context using several social behaviors and situations.

The 1975 movie “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is an example of a social tool that explores deviance. The film is based on the experiences of Randle McMurphy a convicted rapist who chose to serve his term in a mental institution as opposed to serving the sentence in a prison labor camp. When he made this decision, Randle was not aware that his release from the mental institution was subject to the approval of the institution’s administrators.

While at the institution, Randle became a ‘problematic’ patient who always clashed with the head nurse by inciting the other patients to revolt. The film’s main themes were insanity and deviance. This paper uses the characters in this film to investigate the sociology of deviant behavior.

Deviance in this movie is best exemplified by the film’s main character Randle McMurphy. Randle was banished from the society as a result of his deviant behavior when he engaged in statutory rape. When he engaged in this behavior, Randle had already exhibited deviance by going against the expectations of the society.

His deviance went a step further when he avoided spending his time in a prison labor camp and ended up in a mental health institution. This was in spite of the fact that he had no mental health problems and he was just trying to take the easy way out. Conforming to social norms ensures that there is order in the society. Therefore, deviance naturally leads to disorder as Randle’s actions in this film exemplify. While society usually considers deviance to be a bad thing, sociology scholars might disagree with this notion.

Sociology scholars agree that deviance is not necessarily ‘bad’. For instance, not all of Randle’s deviant actions were bad. His statutory rape and avoidance of a jail term were bad actions. However, his deviance towards the actions of the mental institution was beneficial to some of the institution’s patients. Through his deviance, he was able to bring joy, freedom, and power to his fellow patients. Labeling theory might be responsible for Randle’s deviant behavior.

According to labeling theory, Randle continued with his deviant behavior after he had already accepted this label upon his conviction. Randle had not considered his relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl to be wrong until society condemned him and labeled him a deviant. When other people began seeing him as a ‘bad’ person, Randle decided to ‘own’ this label and continued to be a deviant when he entered the mental institution. The differential association theory of deviance also applies to Randle’s behaviors.

Randle did some of the things he did so that he could stand out from the rest of the patients in the mental institution. Therefore, Randle was able to go against conformists such as Nurse Ratched. Differential association theory also states that deviants tend to maintain close contact/friction with authority figures. For instance, at one point in the film Randle said that he could be able to bother Nurse Ratched without any outside help

In “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Nurse Ratched found herself as the chief monitor of deviant behavior in the mental institution. Ratched and Randle find themselves in the opposite sides of the spectrum. She represents authority and conformity in the hospital. These aspects are referred to as ‘mores’ in social psychology.

Ratched did not take time to investigate deviance but she just stood against it. Most of Ratched’s actions do not conform to social psychology. Instead, they highlight her ignorance towards scholarly social psychology. Nevertheless, Nurse Ratched actions are in line with Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory. According to this theory, conformists usually subject perceived deviants to condemnation, denial of injury, denial of responsibility, and they often seek to appease higher authorities.

Nurse Ratched continually engages in these practices by denying the patients their rights, reducing them to mere objects, and turning their lives into mind-numbing routines. In addition, all her efforts are aimed at pleasing the institutional framework of the mental health facility. Nurse Ratchet also acted as an external force that perpetuated labeling theory. All the patients that entered her facility were ‘deviants’ and only her signature and confirmation could prove otherwise.

One of the most interesting characters in this film is Chief Bromden. Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute to avoid dealing with Nurse Ratched’s undesirable characteristics. At first, Chief Bromden is ready to sit back and conform to the norms of the mental institution.

However, through his association with Randle, Bromden starts to show signs of deviant behavior. Bromden’s behavior is in line with differential association theory. Before Bromden associated with Randle, he did not pose any problem to Nurse Ratched. For instance, Bromden smiled for the first time when Randle used him as an escape aid. According to differential association theorists, increased exposure to deviance affects an individual negatively.

It takes time for Chief Bromden to show signs of deviance even after his first exposure to the deviant Randle. Nurse Ratched became aware of Bromden’s change in behavior after he voted in Randle’s favor. The nurse then opted to cut off this exposure by subduing Randle using a medical procedure. According to social control theory, a person can become deviant after his/her social ties are weakened.

This means that separation from the society, family, and a familiar environment can lead to deviance. This is the case for Chief Bromden who only embraces deviance after his continued incarceration at the mental institution. At the end of the film, Bromden had already embraced his ‘insanity’ and was prepared to engage in deviant behavior by escaping from the mental institution.

Billy Bibbit is a voluntary patient who unlike most of the other patients can leave the institution whenever he chooses. This makes Billy a prime example of labeling theory. Other than Randle, everybody else seemed to label Billy as a weak person who was susceptible to suicide.

According to labeling theory, an individual can embrace the negative traits that others bestow upon him/her eventually making them part of his/her own identity. It seems that this is what had happened to Billy because after the positive reinforcement offered to him by Randle he started changing. For instance, when Billy talked to Randle his earlier stutter seemed to disappear.

There are several theories of deviant behavior that help explain the characters in the film “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Most of the characters seem to adhere to the stipulations of the labeling theory. Nurse Ratched represented conformity that might have been explained as deviance by others. All the characters in this film exhibit a certain form of deviance.

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1. IvyPanda. "Deviance in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”." February 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/deviance-in-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest/.


IvyPanda. "Deviance in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”." February 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/deviance-in-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Deviance in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”." February 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/deviance-in-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Deviance in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”'. 6 February.

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