Societal Reaction and the Contribution of Edwin M. Lemert


Edwin M. Lemert was born to middle class parents in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1912.(Winter, 1996:55) His parents had a vision of their son as a lawyer, however to his father’s dismay, Lemert pursued his university education in the field of sociology instead of law. Lemert received his undergraduate degree in sociology from Miami University of Ohio in 1934.(Winter, 1996) The year immediately following graduation, he worked as a case worker in Cincinnati before deciding to pursue his graduate studies in sociology at Ohio State University. Lemert received his Ph.D. (he did not obtain a master’s degree) in Sociology in 1939. (Laub, 1983)

Lemert went on to a distinguished career as a sociologist. He taught briefly at Kent State University and Western Michigan University before teaching at the University of California Los Angeles. He was extended an invitation to become the founding chair of the sociology department of the University of California Davis in 1953. He stayed there for more than forty years. Lemert was honored with many awards of excellence and recognition. In 1974 he received the E. H. Sutherland Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Criminology, and in 1995 he received the lifetime achievement award from the American Criminal Justice Research Association. In 1996, Lemert received the Paul Tappan Award from the Western Society of Criminology. Edwin M. Lemert passed away on November 10, 1996.

Societal Reaction Theory

Although Lemert’s work is related to labeling theory, he was not influenced by the earlier writer’s works. The origins of labeling theory can be traced back to the work of three sociologists’ concepts regarding the concept of self and the effect that tagging or labeling can have on an individual’s self-concept. First, Charles Horton Cooley, in his book entitled Human Nature and the Social Order, presented a concept which he termed the "looking glass self" in which a person will react to others based upon his imagining how he appears to others. According to Cooley, there were three principal elements of the concept: "the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of the appearance, and some sort of self-feeling such as pride or mortification."(p. 152) Additionally, what moves us to pride or shame is the imagined effect of this reflection on the other’s mind. This social self can be called a "looking-glass self."

George Herbert Mead was the second sociologist who contributed to the labeling perspective with the presentation of the concept of self as a social construct. His work involved the study of social interactionism. The concept of self image described the meaning that people gave to themselves, "the self as a social construct." The concept of symbolic interaction involved the study of how symbolic meaning, or language, was used in the process of social interaction among human beings. According to Mead, the self was viewed as a process, not as a structure. (Schur, 1971:8)

Lastly, Frank Tannenbaum introduced the concept of the "dramatization of evil." Tannenbaum’s view was that an act defined as evil is actually transformed into a definition of the actor as evil. He states that the process can be divided into three stages. In the first stage, the individual engages in activities which were first created through a maladjustment to society. It is in the second stage, however, that "there is a gradual shift from the definition of the individual as evil, so that all his acts come to be looked upon with suspicion." (Tannenbaum, 1938:17). Finally, in the third stage of the process of the dramatization of evil, from the point of view of the individual, a change in his self-concept has taken place. The one who is singled out and labeled now recognizes that the definition of him as an individual is different from the other children in his community. This plays a greater role in making the criminal than perhaps any other experience. The individual lives in his own world and associates with those like him due to these changes. Therefore, once labeling occurs, the juvenile begins to engage in the same behavior which has been complained of.

In 1951, Lemert published his theory of secondary deviance related to labeling theory. He did not believe that Social Pathology would have such a lasting impact on the study of deviance and admits that the main purpose in writing the book was to gain tenure at UCLA. Lemert did not perceive the work as being a significant theoretical contribution to the literature. He was just "hoping to make it - career wise." (Laub, 1983)

In the book, Lemert purported to show that deviance was a product of the interaction between individuals and the reactions of society to them. He preferred to think of his perspective as that of societal reaction, not labeling. The best contribution of Lemert’s work to societal reaction and labeling theory was his distinction between primary and secondary deviance. According to Lemert, primary deviance occurs when an actor engages in norm-violating behavior without the individual viewing himself or herself as engaging in a deviant role. The deviations "...are rationalized or otherwise dealt with as functions of a socially acceptable role." (1951:75)

Secondary deviation, according to Lemert, occurs...

When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization.(1951: 76)

At this point, the self-concept of the individual changes so that the self becomes consistent with the deviant role. The effect of this change in self-concept is that the deviant self-conceptions are reinforced by the negative labels, which, in turn, result from the continued engagement in deviant behavior.

The term societal reaction refers to the process by which societies respond to deviant behavior either informally or formally through official agents of social control (i.e. police, courts, corrections, etc.) (Lemert, 1974) He states that it is a "...very general term summarizing both the expressive reactions of others...and action directed to its control."(1967:41-2) Societal reactions may not cause the primary deviation, but once the deviant is so labeled, the very behavior which is complained of is continued through a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lemert argues that a single instance of deviance will more than likely not bring about a severe enough societal reaction for secondary deviation to occur. According to Lemert, there are eight stages in the process leading to secondary deviation. They are as follows: (1) primary deviation; (2) social penalties; (3) further primary deviation; (4) stronger penalties and rejections; (5) further deviation, perhaps with hostilities and resentment beginning to focus upon those doing the penalizing; (6) crisis reached in the tolerance quotient, expressed in formal action by the community stigmatizing of the deviant; (7) strengthening of the deviant conduct as a reaction to the stigmatizing and penalties; and (8) ultimate acceptance of the deviant social status and efforts at adjustment on the basis of the associated role. (1951:76) According to Lemert, the presence of a corroboration of a deviant self-conception and social reinforcement at every stage of the process of becoming a secondary deviant is necessary.

Lemert gives the example of how primary deviation can develop into secondary deviation as the result of negative societal reactions:

As an illustration of this sequence the behavior of an errant school boy can be cited. For one reason or another, let us say excessive energy, the schoolboy engages in a class-room prank. He is penalized for it by the teacher. Later, due to clumsiness, he creates another disturbance and, again he is reprimanded. Then, as sometimes happens, the boy is blamed for something he did not do. When the teacher uses the tag "bad boy" or "mischief maker" or other invidious terms, hostility and resentment are excited in the boy, and he may feel that he is blocked in playing the role expected of him. Thereafter, there may be a strong temptation to assume his role in the class as defined by the teacher, particularly when he discovers that there are rewards as well as penalties deriving from such a role (Lemert, 1951:77).

In sum, Lemert theorized that once an individual is labeled, society always would view the individual in that deviant context. The individual would thus accept the label and then continue in that deviant role. Moreover, this acceptance would change the self-concept of the individual and thus result in secondary deviance. He believed that "...deviance is established in social roles and is perpetuated by the very forces directed to its elimination or control." (1967:v)

The contribution to the field of sociology for which Lemert is best known was his distinction between primary and secondary deviance. However, the underlying theme throughout all of his work is that of social control. According to Lemert, social control refers to the "...notions that folkways, mores, and laws are the predominant means..." to control the actions and behaviors of the members of society. (1967:21) Lemert’s approach to the sociology of social control resembles that of Mead. (Winter, 1996:54) He saw his definition of social control as being twofold. First, a distinction must be made between passive and active social control. Passive refers to the maintenance of the social order through conformity of its members. Active social control refers to group interaction that lead to the "...implementation of goals and values." (1976:21) An in depth examination of social control will not be covered here.

For Lemert, the real source of deviance is in the creation and application of new rules. In the 1970s, he came to view the opposite of what he had previously written. He thought in the beginning that deviance came first and social control followed. The reverse idea is the one which he in turn came to believe - social control leads to deviance. (Winter, 1996:72)

Expansion of Labeling Theory

The labeling perspective was expanded in the 1960s with the contributions of Howard S. Becker, the sociologist for whom labeling theory is best known. According to Lemert, labeling theory was devised by Becker. It and the societal reaction perspective were two completely independent developments. (Laub, 1983; Winter, 1996) Becker, in his book Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance, (1963), resented the first perspective which is known today as labeling theory. According to Becker, deviance is the quality of the reaction of members of society to the offender, not toward the behavior itself. For Becker, deviance in conceptualized in terms of societal reactions. It is always a label affixed to acts and persons by social audiences. "The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied, deviant behavior is behavior that people so label." (Becker, 1963:9) Thus, deviance is actually a social construction. Becker’s ideas of labeling took precedence over those of Lemert as far as acceptance and recognition in the field were concerned. (Laub, 1983)

Edwin Shur is one of the sociologists who expanded labeling theory in the 1970s. Schur introduced the concept of retrospective interpretation. According to Schur, once a person is labeled a criminal, we reexamine past events and behaviors and reinterpret them to fit the new label of that person. For Schur, "deviance is viewed not as a static entity but rather as a continuously shaped and reshaped outcome of dynamic processes of social interaction." (1971:8)

In regard to labeling theory, the working definition of deviance, according to Schur, is that "human behavior is deviant to the extent that it comes to be viewed as involving a personally discreditable departure from a group’s normative expectations, and it elicits interpersonal or collective reactions that serve to ‘isolate,’ ‘treat,’ ‘correct,’ or ‘punish’ individuals engaged in such behavior." (1971:24) As far as retrospective interpretation is concerned, Schur states that there is consideration of the actor, by society, as having bee deviant all along. Actually, a reconstitution of individual character or identity occurs. The deviant person literally becomes a new and different person to others.

The organizational processing of deviants in the criminal justice system is viewed as a status degradation ceremony. The use of the case history provides a retrospective rationalization of the present conclusion of the individual. In the criminal justice system, this occurs during the sentencing phase. The importance of retrospective interpretation is that "the potential force of retrospective interpretation lies in the attendant social refusal to validate the prior identity that the labeled individual seeks to maintain." (Schur, 1971) The aspect of the labeling perspective in which an individual internalizes the deviant role and changes his or her self-concept was termed "role engulfment" by Schur. (1971:69-70)

In 1989, an article entitled "The labeling perspective and delinquency: An elaboration of the theory and an assessment of the evidence" was published by Paternoster and Iovanni. Within this article, the authors examined the application of the labeling perspective to juvenile delinquency and suggested that labeling theory was not as invalid as critics might claim it to be. Paternoster and Iovanni called for a restatement and revitalization of the labeling perspective.

According to Paternoster and Iovanni, labeling theory can be traced to both the conflict perspective and to symbolic interactionism. The conflict orientation of labeling theory is manifested at several levels of analysis. (p.361) Schur notes that conflict occurs at three levels, collective rulemaking, organizational processing, and interpersonal relations. Conflict at the organizational level incorporates the labeling process.

Labeling theory can also be traced back to the symbolic interactionist approach. Within this perspective, labeling theorists examine the effects of rule enforcement at whom labels are directed. This rule enforcement, according to Lemert, leads to secondary deviance. Paternoster and Iovanni argue that contrary to previous interpretations of secondary deviation, it is not deterministic. Secondary deviance only describes the conditions under which deviance may produce subsequent problems. These problems, in turn, may facilitate continued deviance. But in no way is an individual destined to engage in secondary deviance.

According to Paternoster and Iovanni, within an organizational context, labeling theorists contend that the determination of who is to be labeled is in part determined by extralegal or status attributes. Those with less power and status are more likely to be processed through the criminal justice system. These status attributes, however, are not the most important determinant of who is officially processed through the system or of the outcomes of labeling. Paternoster and Iovanni argue that "additional research is required before a more definitive assessment of the status characteristics hypothesis can be made fairly." (p.372)

A good deal of research suggests that the effects of labeling may be produced in variation, depending upon social context. Paternoster and Iovanni state that "...the effect of status characteristics on labeling outcomes is not invariant, but varies substantially across different social contexts." (p.373)

On secondary deviance, Paternoster and Iovanni argue that being labeled a deviant has three main consequences: a change in one’s self concept, denial of participation in conventional groups by the offender, and an increase in the probability of continued deviant behavior. Additionally, the imposition of a label is unlikely to lead to secondary deviance if the fact is kept quiet. On the other hand, if the label is publicly broadcast, the probability of further involvement in secondary deviance is increased. Thus, depending on whether or not other members of society become aware of the deviant label, a person may or may not have an increased likelihood of engaging in secondary deviance and becoming part of a deviant subculture.

Paternoster and Iovanni go on to state that the internalization of the label is also not an inevitable consequence. "Individuals may or may not view their actions as inherently wrong, and may be capable of rationalizing them away." (p. 379) Moreover, the process of creating a new identity is dependent upon the reactions of others as well as our perception of those reactions. This article presents an elaboration and detailed analysis of the history of labeling theory and its criticisms. The authors call for more research to be conducted in the area of labeling theory in order to revitalize and reconstruct the theory for the future.

Empirical Studies

There are numerous empirical studies which have been conducted that support the labeling perspective. Among these studies is one which examined the theory itself using longitudinal data. Melvin C. Ray and William R Downs undertook a study of one-hundred and eighty-eight adolescents in order to determine the effect of formal and informal labels on drug use behavior. The results of this study were that among males, the proposition of secondary deviance was partially supported. However, among females, drug use behavior was causally prior to labels, which contradicts the concept of secondary deviance.

The study confirmed "the contention that the adoption of a deviant label and not self-esteem is the salient variable involved in secondary deviance and other labeling processes." (p. 185-186) The labeling theory proposition of secondary deviance was only supported for males. This contradicts earlier findings that labeling applies equally across gender lines. Moreover, the findings do support the thesis by Harris (1977) concerning sex bias in contemporary theories of deviance. Thus, this study suggests some modifications of labeling theory and secondary deviance. The main modification would come with the role of gender within labeling theory. Moreover, self-label among males was found not to be a function of the formal labeling process. This study has provided some major implications of the further development of the labeling perspective as well as future studies on labeling theory and secondary deviance.

Yet another empirical test utilizing labeling theory was conducted by Smith and Paternoster (1990). The study found that juveniles recommended for formal juvenile court processing were significantly more delinquent during the follow-up period. This result is consistent with the concept of secondary deviance. However, with further more rigorous methodology, it was found that this result was actually due to selection artifact. The juveniles who were selected for formal processing were actually more likely to recidivate, without the labeling effects. Thus, the study found no support for the deviance amplification hypothesis.

A third empirical analysis utilizing labeling theory was published in 1992 by Daniel Socall and Thomas Holtgraves. The authors tested the validity of negative labels on the mentally ill. The results of the study were that despite the severity of the illness, labels had a positive influence on the person being rejected. Thus, the results provide evidence that negative reactions by society to the mentally ill are not exclusively due to the behavior of the mentally ill individual. This study, therefore, supports labeling theory in relation to stigmatizing labels of the mentally ill.

In a study conducted by Smith and Brame (1994), it was found that labeling theory clearly attempts to explain the persistence of delinquency, but not the initial acts of delinquency. The authors state that "negative labeling increases the likelihood of continued delinquent activity, but it has no effect on the probability of committing one’s first delinquent act." (p. 40) Thus, negative labels only contribute to the persistence of delinquency. These findings support Lemert’s concept of secondary deviance and are in contradiction with those of Smith and Paternoster (1990).

Lastly, Corey (1996), found that labeling was a key factor in the self-concept of young men in prison. The men were seen as "outsiders" while they were incarcerated and not able to attain "normal" status during this time. They were found to have been "well-inscribed" by those who have the power to create deviance and apply the label.(p.75) Thus, this study supports the societal reaction perspective in that those on the outside were able to successfully apply the label to those who were on the inside.

Integrated Theories

Researchers and theorists are still interested in how deviance amplification occurs. It is an area in which the research focus is continued. The future of labeling theory lies in its inclusion among other theories into an integrated theory of delinquency. The perspective is influential on empirical studies being conducted on deviance. A prominent integrated theory which includes labeling theory is "Reflected appraisals, parental labeling, and delinquency: Specifying a symbolic interactionist theory" by Ross L. Matsueda. Published in 1992, this integrated theory draws on a symbolic interactionist perspective to specify a theory of the self to explain delinquent behavior. Labeling theorists’ concepts which are included are the dramatization of evil, deviance amplification, and secondary deviance. The integrated framework was tested utilizing a causal mode. The results of the statistical analysis find support for the theory.

Matsueda draws on labeling theory to specify the broader social determinants of the reflected appraisal process. In this he focuses primarily on the negative consequences of labeling an individual as deviant or delinquent. Matsueda proposes that "labeling theory can help specify the relationships between background characteristics, the informal labeling process, and delinquency." (p.1589) He goes on to state that this will happen in three ways. First, youths who have previously engaged in delinquent acts should be more likely to be labeled deviant by their parents. Second, the parental appraisals of children may be influenced by structural conditions that reflect disadvantages. And third, parental appraisals of youths as delinquent or conforming will influence the continued delinquency of the youth.

The findings of the Matsueda study support Lemert’s concept of secondary deviance. "Persons who perceive that others view them as one who violates rules, or gets in trouble, engage in more delinquent acts." (p. 1601) He also found that delinquents, nonwhites, and urban dwellers are more likely to have labels applied to them. Thus, Matsueda’s empirical analysis utilizing labeling theory in an integrated framework found support for the theory and the notion of secondary deviance.

A second study which empirically analyses labeling theory within an integrated framework was published in 1979 by Aultman and Wellford. This study combined labeling theory with anomie and a variety of control theory. The results of the study suggest that the utilization of an integrated model which incorporates many of the current theories on delinquency is conducive to the comprehension of delinquency variability. The variables of labeling and parental control were found to provide a more adequate elucidation of delinquency causation than was anomie.

Edwards (1992), also conducted an empirical study of the labeling perspective utilizing an integrated theory framework. In this study, Edwards presents the argument that labeling theory seems to help explain how an individual becomes a delinquent. The findings of the study show that there is a fairly strong relationship between the degree of social control and the delinquent’s view of negative labels. This result was explained by the low social control permitting the adolescents to engage in deviant behavior and therefore becoming negatively labeled by their social audience. The study also found that institutionalized youths were more likely to have perceived negative labeling than those who were not institutionalized. Thus, the contribution of labeling theory to this integrated theoretical model was significant.

A fourth empirical study which supports labeling theory as part of an integrated framework which included anomie, social bonding, delinquent peer association, labeling and self esteem was conducted by Edwards (1996). In the study, he found that correlations between two groups, one of delinquents and one of nondelinquents, ,"...seems to suggest that adolescents who initially are not recognized as delinquents by their general audience seem to be more influenced by the placing of the label after they have committed the initial act than are those adolescents who have committed several delinquent acts." (p. 978) The stronger correlation existed for those who did not perceive of themselves as delinquents. Thus, it is suggested that something may be occurring that lessens the impact of the labeling process.

The results of this study support the contention that individuals who have move into secondary deviance are not as susceptible to the label or its effects. Edwards goes on to state that these delinquents may view the label as actually aiding in their identification with deviant groups or strengthening those ties. The more negative the self concept of the delinquent, the more apt he or she will be in the persistence of deviance.

The body of literature on the societal reaction perspective and labeling theory is quite extensive and provides a broad overview of the theory from its sociological origins to its inclusion into an integrated theoretical framework explanation of delinquency. This paper has attempted to cover the origins of the societal reaction perspective, the theoretical contributions of Edwin M. Lemert and other sociologists who expanded on the idea, recent empirical studies supportive of the labeling perspective, and the future of labeling thoery as part of an integrated theoretical frmework. No attempt has been made to critique the societal reaction perspective. In light of the material presented, it seems that the societal reaction perspective will get a second look by most criminologists in its inclusion in an integrated framework of criminological etiology.





















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