Critical is rule-breaking behavior that is carried out by

Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
Critical Analysis of
Lemert’s Labeling Theory
Arizona State University
Andrew Yepez
Criminal Justice 308
Professor Smith
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
“Deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is nothing inherently deviant in
any human act, something is deviant only because some people have been successful in labeling it
so.” (Simmons, 1969, Pfohl,85). Labeling theory has always been a prominent theory in societies all
across the world ever since the Medieval Times and all the way up into the present. The 1950s was
the start of the Labeling theory, people like Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert, they were two of
the founders of the theory, their work still continues down to the pages of present day journals. The
section of Labeling theory that will be focused on in this critical analysis will be Primary and
Secondary Deviance that was by Sociologist Edwin Lemert in his work “Social Pathology”. In the
analysis, the strengths and weaknesses of the theory, the relation, effects and influences to crime and
delinquency, as well as the implications Primary and Secondary Deviance has on policing practices.
In 1951, Lemert formulized the concepts of Primary and Secondary Deviance which defined
Deviance into two stages within the labeling theory. The first of the two was Primary Deviance,
“Primary deviance is rule-breaking behavior that is carried out by people who see themselves and
are seen by others as basically conformist. People break rules in all kinds of circumstances and for
all kinds of reasons, such that Lemert thought sociology can’t possibly develop any general theories
about primary deviance” (Mork,2017). The concept of Primary Deviance is “…Seen by individuals
as peripheral to their identity and to the conventional social roles they typically perform on a daily
basis” (Cullen, Agnew & Wilcox, 2014).
Primary Deviance is seen predominately in society as behaviors that are not serious enough
to be distinguished as criminal behavior, even though the it is still deviant behavior. The reason for
that is due to the fact that is, “Today, Americans consider such activities as alcoholism, excessive
gambling, being nude in public places, playing with fire, stealing, lying, refusing to bathe, purchasing
the services of prostitutes, and cross-dressing—to name only a few—as deviant. People who engage in
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
deviant behavior are referred to as deviants” (CLIFF, 2016). Each of those are in a sense Deviant
behavior classified under Primary, but they do not necessarily entail a person to be labeled as a
Criminal, instead as Deviants.
In this stage of Lemert’s Deviance, the influences primary has on crime is not so much
“crime” because the behaviors or actions that classify under this stage as stated are not criminal. As
well as the fact, this stage relies on the conformity behavior of deviance, a person would commit a
rule breaking behavior, because the conformed to do the same behaviors because that’s how they
see themselves or are seen by others. But they are not labeled in a negative light, for example, the
class clown will break the rule of mocking a teacher as a joke to get a laugh out of his or her peers.
Which fits under the premise of Primary it is an act of deviance without committing an actual crime.
A big part of Lermert’s Deviance is that the behaviors associated with each stage can lead the
individual depending on what they have done, and the labels associated by their peers as an Identity
crisis as many Labeling theorists have been concerned about.
Primary Deviance has an implication on today’s policing practices in the sense that if the
behavior is not seen as something that the police need to be involved, then the person who
committed the deviance may not learn from their behavior as well as the offense may go unreported.
For example, if a child goes to the supermarket with their mother or father, and when they are in
the candy aisle the child takes some candy from the display to fill the bags of candy when their parent
is not looking. But the manager of the supermarket sees the child eat the candy they took, but instead
of calling the police they ignore it as child behavior. The result the child is not labeled as a “thief”
even though in a sense it is stealing. But due to the manager seeing it as child behavior it ends up
fitting under primary deviance instead. Since all that comes from it is a stern talking to the child and
an apology to the manager of the store.
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
“Although Lemert (1967) suggested that primary deviance is the foremost justification for
breaking norms and rules of society, the concept was largely disregarded in favor of secondary, in
particular, the pivotal pint whereby deviant behavior escalates from societal reaction to rule breaking
acts (Norman 2009)” (Hawkins). The other stage of Lemert’s deviance theory is Secondary
Deviance which is where deviance occurs as a result of a person’s labels from society a how they
react to them. Many Labeling theorists believed that secondary deviance occurs when a person who
exerted behaviors in primary deviance did not get labeled as criminal, their deviant behaviors grew
to go into more criminal behaviors. Thus, resulting in the individual ending up being labeled as a
criminal, such as a thief, a pedophile, a rapist, etc.
“This type of deviance, unlike primary deviance, has major implications for a person’s status
and relationships in society and is a direct result of the internalization of the deviant label” (Skaggs,
2017). Which in this stage is one of the biggest implications that occurs, due to the fact it is affecting
a person’s Identity which is one of the determining factors into their actions later in life. The
consistent negative responses or reactions they are given by their peers will cause the individual to
end up accepting the criminal label, thus resulting them to associating themselves with others with
the same label, which will cause them to make future decisions that fit within that label.
“Lemert defined Secondary Deviance as ‘a special class of socially defined responses which
people make to problems created by the social reaction to their deviance’ (Lemert 1972, p.40)” (Van
Krieken, 2014). Within this theory, the reaction plays a big part in the person’s identity as well as
effecting other aspects. Such as in the Criminal Justice system, secondary deviance will lead a person
into a never-ending cycle of deviant behavior due to the label they have been associated with. Such
as going back to the child who stole the candy from the supermarket, their deviant behavior as they
get older will continue and they will move onto stealing other items of more value, and then end up
getting arrested and sent to prison. Then when they are released they will be labeled as a “thief” and
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
when they apply for a job it will make it harder for them to survive. In turn would lead them to
continue the cycle of crime, and revert back to stealing to survive. It may have changed if the store
manager punished him for his theft, instead of ignoring it as childish behavior.
Which in our society still occurs due to what our society has perceived to be “normal” and
is the biggest downfall. Adolescents are being misguided due to adults perceiving their actions
justifiable to their age. Another example of Secondary deviance was “in a study of illegal drug users
by Jock Young (1971). The hippy drug takers were seen as the deviants by the police who
represented the establishment. The power dimension is involved as the police have the powers of
arrest and prosecution which results in the deviant label being more successfully applied to the
hippies” (Jorgenson,1997). In the study, it showed how the deviant label the hippies had by the
police believed that all hippies were illegal drug users even though in actuality they all were not. But
it was due the police officers perceived notions that they all of were drug users and criminal, even
though the message that the hippies were spreading was peace and love.
The actions the hippies took against the police was not to harm but it was defense to their
label and perceived image by the police which lead to the protests and deviant behaviors the hippies
ended up exerting and backing up the idea of secondary deviance. Such as stated by Lermert himself
“Secondary Deviation is deviant behavior, or social roles based upon it, which becomes means of
defense, attack or adaptation to the overt and covert problems created by the social reaction to
primary deviation…” (Lilly, Cullen & Ball,2007).
Lemert’s theory of Primary and Secondary Deviance within his work of “Social Pathology”,
although each stage explained associations between a person’s criminal behavior and their identity.
But just like anything other successful or well-known theory, he had many strengths and limitations
to his theory. Some of the strengths that his theory has is that from his acknowledgement of his two
ideologies which illustrates that not all deviant behaviors are not all criminal, even though they are
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
perceived in our society that all are criminal. Which is a major strength of his terms because it shows
how a biased conjecture towards a person’s deviant and criminal acts could lead to wrongful
accusations and the social alienation of an innocent person.
Such as what occurs to young men who get accused by a woman that they raped her, but
in reality, it was consensual and due to the bias that our society has. When an allegation of that sort
is taken seriously and can cause an innocent young man’s life to be ruined in a blink of an eye
because they become labeled as a rapist. Along with the strengths he had limitations such as;
“…Primary and Secondary Deviance need to be more clearly defined and the assumptions
surrounding their development elaborated” (Walters, 1990). Lemert’s terms of Deviance had some
limitations which was that the terms would steer more towards a further linear micro social world of
meaning through the responses that of institutions such as social control agents, arrests and court
hearing rather than focusing on the deviant act itself. As well as the fact that his terms even though
he argued that they could be interpreted between original and applicable etiology (social,
psychological cultural and physical) of deviance, but it highlights and binary opposition of what
deviant or criminal behavior actually involve.
After reviewing Lermert’s terms of deviance within the labeling theory and his “social
pathology” my opinion of the merits of his work is simply this. I ultimately agree with his terms, as I
gone more in depth of the terms and his work surrounding the terms. I came to the conclusion that
the work is beneficial and does in a sense help to show and a person’s deviant behavior and can be
adapted to various parts of criminology, sociology and psychology. Such as that I believe his terms
can help to explain the possibility of what lead a person to commit a mass shooting, a murder, a
robbery or any other crime.
From his theory and terms, it could show that a label a person who committed murder got
from when they were a young child, stemmed to their behavior later in life because of being
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
misguided and acceptance of that label which lead them to a life of deviant behavior instead of
knowing the proper knowledge to stay away. As well as the Lemert’s terms and work itself, in my
opinion proves enough merit themselves for it to be a credible theory for stepping stones towards a
better understanding of what is a deviant behavior and what is not. Since his terms show that what
may be perceived a deviant behavior only is because the fact that it goes against the social norm of
our society.
Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
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Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory
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