Edwin M. Schur


            American Edwin M. Schur was an educator and a sociologist whose theories came to prominence from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. His theoretical perspectives were based upon the labeling theory popularized by Becker and Lemert and were generalized towards a criminological perspective (1971:8). Schur’s theories include the decriminalization of “victimless crimes”(1974:6), an increased emphasis on crime prevention utilizing treatment of offenders versus increased enforcement (1969:11), and the labeling of women as deviant (1983).  His models were well received but did not come without criticism.  Many of his perspectives are still popular and are still discussed and researched by criminologists today. 

Biographical Information

Edwin Schur graduated from Williams College in 1952 with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  He attended the Yale Law School, earned a law degree, and was admitted to the Connecticut State Bar in 1955.  Schur continued his education at the London School of Economics, where he earned a Ph. D. in Economics in 1959.  He then began his career as an instructor and professor of Sociology (Schur 2000).

Schur’s first position as an instructor in Sociology was at Wellesley College, from 1959-1961.  He became an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tufts University in 1961, and served in that capacity until 1966. Schur took a sabbatical from Tufts University in 1963-64 in order to study and assist with research at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California- Berkley. After returning to Tufts University, he was named Professor of Sociology in 1966 and remained in that capacity until 1971. Schur moved to New York University from 1971 to 1993, where he was a professor and the Head of the Sociology Department.  Schur retired from teaching and practicing Sociology in 1993.  Upon his retirement, he was honored with the title of Professor Emeritus in the Sociology Department at New York University. He has served as a member of the Governor’s Special Commission on Crime and Violence (Massachusetts) and as a consultant to the National Institute of Mental Health.  He has been an Associate Editor of the journal Social Problems. He currently lives in retirement in New York and has no further interest in participating in or discussing sociology “at all”(Schur 2000).

Schur’s Theories

Edwin Schur developed many of his theories on crime and deviance from the mid 1960s to the early 1980’s. His early theories in the sixties were developed in a time of great interest in citizen rights. The political climate was tense, the Cold War was still waging, and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. There was great debate and division across America with regards to equal rights for minorities, especially blacks. The military action in Vietnam was becoming more than a call for military advisement. The “Hippie” culture was in full swing, with a big emphasis on revolt against the “establishment”.  As part of the “establishment”, law enforcement officers and agencies were frequent targets of protest and violent riots.

            Schur states that there was controversy surrounding the scope and limits of substantive criminal law and that, at this time, there was a trend toward decriminalization (1974). Schur also states that there has long been debate about acts of deviance being “at the borderline of crime” (1965: v). This is based upon Schur’s theory that victimless crimes are over-legislated laws that accentuate societies values, even though they do not bring harm to anyone. Schur believes these acts are deviant, but that they are only crimes because of the laws prohibiting them, which Schur believes are unenforceable laws (1983: 184).

At the time of Schur’s theories, there was an apparent urgency for sociologists to discuss these issues, as they came at a time of intense “political consciousness” (1980:3), as society as a whole was very concerned with deviance, which was being defined as political in nature (1980). It was in this atmosphere that Schur theorized about “victimless crimes”. 

Edwin Schur’s theories on crime and deviance originated from Howard Becker’s Labeling theory of deviance (1971:6). Schur agrees with Becker in that acts are labeled as deviance by society as a whole, based upon the norms of society. Deviance is not necessarily the act itself, but the label placed upon the act by society. These norms, which are a consolidation of societal values, are then sanctioned as laws. Schur adds that the focus of the labeling theory is shifted to the individual deviant.  He claims that, if people who are labeled deviant can organize and gain power within the society, they will be able to change societal views on what is or what is not considered deviant.  Schur says that this change in power may come in the form of uprisings, social movements, and even civil strife, which could ultimately result in the formation of a strong political group. (1971)

Schur discusses the labeling theory further with respect to people who have been labeled deviant through their involvement in “victimless crimes”.  Schur defines these crimes as voluntary exchanges of a commodity or personal service that is socially disapproved of and legally proscribed (1965). These exchanges rarely, if ever, cause harm to the parties and no one is victimized.  Schur considers the laws that create these  “victimless crimes” dysfunctional, as they punish people who have victimized no one, as each party involved in the crime is a willing participant (1965: 171). These laws, according to Schur, are a result of over legislation by society and the laws have an overall negative effect in three ways: they expand deviance overall, as those involved develop a deviant self-image; they create subcultures, as those involved seek others with the same desires; and they create secondary crimes, as those involved may need to commit other crimes in order to supplement their deviant desires (i.e. drug addiction, abortion, prostitution).  Schur believes that society could conserve wasted resources and money by decriminalizing these laws (1965).   Society should concentrate on medical treatment and prevention programs instead of relying on prohibitive measures and enforcement against those who are involved in this form of social deviancy (Schur 1974).

Schur expands on his previous theories on crime in our society. In order to prevent and deter crime, Schur theorizes that we need to direct our attention away from an emphasis on law enforcement and direct our efforts towards the treatment of offenders.  Along with the treatment of offenders, we should attempt to deal with potential criminals in order to direct them away from becoming involved in crime.  In order to complete this crime prevention and deterrence model, the primary focus should be on direct action against social conditions that encourage crime, such as economic deprivation. (Schur 1969).

In the 70’s and early 80’s, the feminist movement was growing strong and there was a push for equal treatment for women and women’s rights (Schur 1984). It was at this time when Schur’s last major model was revealed, the stigmatization of women in society.  Schur states that, with regards to deviance, women are subject to labeling on a greater scale than men, as we live in a society that is dominated by traditional male norms.  Women who deviate from male designated norms, especially with regards to sexuality and beauty, are more readily labeled than any male who deviates from these same norms. Women who commit deviant acts and/or crime are stigmatized more harshly than men, even when the male’s crime is more heinous.  Women are expected to live according to the societal concepts placed upon them. If they don’t live up to those standards, especially with respect to beauty and maternity, they are considered deviant or labeled as social outcasts. (Schur 1983).


Schur’s theories seemed to be well received, but they did not come without criticism.  Schur’s theories of labeling, victimless crimes, and the stigmatization of female behavior as deviant received critical reviews from some of his peers. This criticism did not seem to change or reshape Schur’s theories, as he made no overt changes or further developments in his future writings.

            Schur’s writings on labeling theory were criticized for their lack of originality.  Manning (1973: 127) said that Schur’s theory “marks the exhaustion of another pathway” in the labeling perspective and added that Schur brought nothing new to the theory popularized by Becker and Lemert.  Schur raised a few significant issues in his theory, such as the need to distinguish levels at which reaction processes occur. However, he did not expand on the model enough to make an impact on it.  Manning states that Schur did not attempt to dispel important questions of doubt about the theory that have been raised by other perspectives, such as phenomenologists and critical theorists.

The phenomenological perspective is based upon the individual consciousness of the members of society and that social reality is based upon the common sense of each member to act accordingly. Members are not ruled by external forces or labels, but decide how to act based upon their own internal constraints of conscience (Pfohl 1994). Critical theorists point out that deviance is not caused by labels constructed by society, but can be caused by other factors within society, such as economical status, power or lack thereof, and personal and political struggles.  According to Manning, Schur’s model lacked any impact because it failed to recognize or contrast any of these perspectives (1973:127).

            Kruttschnitt (1984: 596) agreed with Schur’s overall assessment of female stigmatization. However, she was taken aback by what she perceived as a major weakness within the theory.  The theory states that women who commit crime are more likely to be labeled as deviant than men who commit the same crimes.  Kruttschnitt states that research findings contradict this.  Kruttschnitt, who states that she is most familiar with research on women committing crime, says that research actually shows that women offenders are less likely to be labeled than male offenders. Due to this weakness in the theory, Kruttschnitt states,  “the complex and contradictory literature on the sanctioning of women offenders remains almost untouched” (1984:596).  She described this as the “least informative” segment of Schur’s model on female stigmatization (Kruttschnitt 1984:596). However, she states that Schur’s work should not be disregarded, as it is an outstanding contribution towards the issues of feminist theory, sex roles, and the labeling theory (Kruttschnitt 1984: 596).

Bedau challenges Schur’s theory of “victimless” crimes on the appropriateness of the term “victimless” crime itself.  Schur defined “victimless” crimes as those in which no one is hurt or victimized.  Bedau brings into question Schur’s definition, especially with regard to when a crime becomes victimless. Bedau further questions what constitutes victimization and how it is defined. Bedau claims that there are few crimes in which no one is hurt in some way.  The hurt or injury can be in the form of a physical injury, mental anguish, or exploitation and degradation of a person (Bedau 1974: 62).  Bedau uses the example of abortion to argue against Schur’s definition.  He says that abortion involves two parties, the parent and the unborn fetus. By Schur’s definition, no one is a victim because the unborn fetus feels no pain or suffering during the procedure.  However, Bedau argues that abortion is the killing of an unborn, fetal person. Since someone was physically harmed or killed, then there is a victim in abortion and it cannot be considered a victimless crime (Bedau 1974: 67).

With regards to Schur’s call to decriminalize some “victimless” crimes, Bedau states that this would be a very difficult task to accomplish. Most of the problem rests on determining which crimes are actually “victimless”.  Bedau (1974: 59) states that even the authorities on such matters, such as criminologist Jerome Skolnick, jurist Herbert Packer, and Schur himself, cannot agree as to which crimes could be considered “victimless”. Bedau (1974: 62) then states that, in order to declare a crime “victimless”, one needs to define victimization, which is not a simple concept. This returns us to Bedau’s original criticism of Schur’s definition of a “victimless” crime, as described in the previous paragraph.

Current Popularity

Edwin Schur retired from active participation in sociology in 1993.  Since then, there has been no relevant discussion focusing primarily on his models. However, there is still quite a lot of current and recent discussion about the basis of his models, including the decriminalization of some “victimless crimes” and the increase in criminality of women. There is also an abundance of literature and discussion within modern criminology about the societal reaction (labeling) theory.

            Numerous articles and books have been written regarding “victimless crimes”.  Meier and Geis  contributed the most relevant literature regarding Schur’s model on “victimless crimes”. They focus on the same four “victimless crimes” (prostitution, abortion, homosexuality and drugs) as Schur discussed in his model.  With regards to Schur’s suggestion of focusing on prevention and treatment, Meier and Geis (1997) state that there will always be groups within society who will advocate the use of law to solve problems of undesirable behavior. This will result in considerable disagreement and debate over which behaviors should be considered criminal.  Others have studied and written about the decriminalization of “victimless crimes”. Dombrink (1993) discusses the evolution of public policy and public opinion towards “victimless crimes”. And numerous articles have been written about the effects of “victimless crime” on society (see Veneziano 1993, Peak 1993). Others have focused primarily on the decriminalization of narcotics laws. Most of the literature criticizes the financial cost of the war on drugs and state that prevention and treatment programs may be more effective, both financially and in reducing the addiction and use of drugs (Polsby 1997). Considering the amount of literature in this area, this appears to be one of the most popular and most controversial subjects debated in criminology today.

            There have also been a few articles written with regards to Schur’s model on the stigmatization of women.  Most of the articles are from the early 1990’s and the most recent was in 1995.  These writings discuss the stereotyping of prostitutes in the media (Derrick 1995), the media’s effect on the labeling of female criminals (Yeates 1993), and the labeling of women who use alcohol and drugs (Broom 1991). Most of these authors suggest that more research is needed in the area of female stigmatization, especially with regards to female criminality. A major concern raised by many of the articles is the fact that women are stigmatized from male standards and viewpoints.  These authors suggest that, in order to have a complete understanding of female deviance, studies need to focus on female deviance as seen from a feminist perspective. 

            Presently, the societal reaction perspective continues to have influence on research in the area of criminology, especially with regards to deviance and social control. There continues to be a desire to learn of a relationship between control agents and those who are labeled deviant. In this respect, researchers have pursued three general areas of inquiry in order to establish this relationship: (1) the historical development of deviant labels, (2) the process by which labels are applied, and (3) the consequences of being labeled (Pfohl 1994). Even though Schur and others have discussed these areas in their work, there does not seem to be a consensus as to the relationship, and that is why the research is still necessary.




Bedau, Hugo and Schur, Edwin (1974) Victimless crimes: Two sides of controversy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.


Broom, D and Stevens, A. (1991) Doubly Deviant: Women Using Alcohol and Other Drugs. International Journal on Drug Policy 2(4), 25-27.


Derrick, A. (1995) Women Who Work as Prostitutes: The Sex Trade and Trading in Labels. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.


Dombrink, J. (1993) Victimless Crimes And The Culture Wars Of The 1990s. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 9(1), 30-40.


Kruttschnitt, Candace (1984) Labeling Women Deviant: Gender Stigma, and Social control. Contemporary  Sociology. 13(5), 596.


Manning, Peter K. (1973) Labeling Deviant Behavior. Contemporary Sociology. 2(2), 123-128.


Meier, R F and Geis, G. (1997) Victimless Crime? Prostitution, Drugs, Homosexuality, Abortion. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Co.


Peak, K J and Stitt, B G. (1993) Victimless Crimes. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 9(1), 1-69.


Pfohl, Stephen. (1994) Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Polsby, D D. (1997) Ending the War on Drugs and Children. Valparaiso University Law Review 31(2), 537-546.


Schur, Edwin. (1965) Crimes without victims: Deviant behavior and public policy: Abortion, homosexuality, drug addiction. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.


Schur, Edwin (1974) Victimless crimes: Two sides of controversy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.


Schur, Edwin. (1980) The politics of deviance. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.


Schur, Edwin. (1969) Our criminal society. Englewood Cliffs: New Jersey.


Schur, Edwin. (1971) Labeling deviant behavior. New York: Harper and Row.


Schur, Edwin. (1983) Labeling women deviant: gender, stigma and social control. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Schur, Edwin. (2000) Personal correspondence with Colin McCaughey. September 25,2000. Murrieta, CA.


Veneziano, L and Veneziano, C. (1993) Are Victimless Crimes Actually Harmful? Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 9(1), 1-14.


Yeates, H. (1993) Victimless Crimes And Crimeless Victims. Criminology Australia 4(3), 22-25.