Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory1Critical Analysis ofLemert’s Labeling TheoryArizona State UniversityAndrew YepezCriminal Justice 308Professor Smith11/19/17Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory2″Deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is nothing inherently deviant inany human act, something is deviant only because some people have been successful in labeling itso.” (Simmons, 1969, Pfohl,85). Labeling theory has always been a prominent theory in societies allacross the world ever since the Medieval Times and all the way up into the present. The 1950s wasthe start of the Labeling theory, people like Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert, they were two ofthe founders of the theory, their work still continues down to the pages of present day journals.
Thesection of Labeling theory that will be focused on in this critical analysis will be Primary andSecondary Deviance that was by Sociologist Edwin Lemert in his work “Social Pathology”. In theanalysis, the strengths and weaknesses of the theory, the relation, effects and influences to crime anddelinquency, 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 definedDeviance 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 andare seen by others as basically conformist. People break rules in all kinds of circumstances and forall kinds of reasons, such that Lemert thought sociology can’t possibly develop any general theoriesabout primary deviance” (Mork,2017). The concept of Primary Deviance is “…Seen by individualsas peripheral to their identity and to the conventional social roles they typically perform on a dailybasis” (Cullen, Agnew & Wilcox, 2014).Primary Deviance is seen predominately in society as behaviors that are not serious enoughto be distinguished as criminal behavior, even though the it is still deviant behavior. The reason forthat is due to the fact that is, “Today, Americans consider such activities as alcoholism, excessivegambling, being nude in public places, playing with fire, stealing, lying, refusing to bathe, purchasingthe services of prostitutes, and cross-dressing—to name only a few—as deviant.
People who engage inCritical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory3deviant behavior are referred to as deviants” (CLIFF, 2016). Each of those are in a sense Deviantbehavior classified under Primary, but they do not necessarily entail a person to be labeled as aCriminal, 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. Aswell as the fact, this stage relies on the conformity behavior of deviance, a person would commit arule breaking behavior, because the conformed to do the same behaviors because that’s how theysee themselves or are seen by others. But they are not labeled in a negative light, for example, theclass 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 theindividual depending on what they have done, and the labels associated by their peers as an Identitycrisis as many Labeling theorists have been concerned about.
Primary Deviance has an implication on today’s policing practices in the sense that if thebehavior is not seen as something that the police need to be involved, then the person whocommitted 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 inthe candy aisle the child takes some candy from the display to fill the bags of candy when their parentis not looking. But the manager of the supermarket sees the child eat the candy they took, but insteadof 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 upfitting under primary deviance instead. Since all that comes from it is a stern talking to the child andan apology to the manager of the store.Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory4″Although Lemert (1967) suggested that primary deviance is the foremost justification forbreaking norms and rules of society, the concept was largely disregarded in favor of secondary, inparticular, the pivotal pint whereby deviant behavior escalates from societal reaction to rule breakingacts (Norman 2009)” (Hawkins).
The other stage of Lemert’s deviance theory is SecondaryDeviance which is where deviance occurs as a result of a person’s labels from society a how theyreact to them. Many Labeling theorists believed that secondary deviance occurs when a person whoexerted behaviors in primary deviance did not get labeled as criminal, their deviant behaviors grewto go into more criminal behaviors. Thus, resulting in the individual ending up being labeled as acriminal, such as a thief, a pedophile, a rapist, etc.”This type of deviance, unlike primary deviance, has major implications for a person’s statusand 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 affectinga person’s Identity which is one of the determining factors into their actions later in life. Theconsistent negative responses or reactions they are given by their peers will cause the individual toend up accepting the criminal label, thus resulting them to associating themselves with others withthe 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 whichpeople make to problems created by the social reaction to their deviance’ (Lemert 1972, p.40)” (VanKrieken, 2014). Within this theory, the reaction plays a big part in the person’s identity as well aseffecting other aspects. Such as in the Criminal Justice system, secondary deviance will lead a personinto a never-ending cycle of deviant behavior due to the label they have been associated with. Suchas going back to the child who stole the candy from the supermarket, their deviant behavior as theyget older will continue and they will move onto stealing other items of more value, and then end upgetting arrested and sent to prison.
Then when they are released they will be labeled as a “thief” andCritical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory5when they apply for a job it will make it harder for them to survive. In turn would lead them tocontinue the cycle of crime, and revert back to stealing to survive. It may have changed if the storemanager 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” andis the biggest downfall.
Adolescents are being misguided due to adults perceiving their actionsjustifiable to their age. Another example of Secondary deviance was “in a study of illegal drug usersby Jock Young (1971). The hippy drug takers were seen as the deviants by the police whorepresented the establishment. The power dimension is involved as the police have the powers ofarrest and prosecution which results in the deviant label being more successfully applied to thehippies” (Jorgenson,1997). In the study, it showed how the deviant label the hippies had by thepolice believed that all hippies were illegal drug users even though in actuality they all were not. Butit was due the police officers perceived notions that they all of were drug users and criminal, eventhough 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 theirlabel and perceived image by the police which lead to the protests and deviant behaviors the hippiesended 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 ofdefense, attack or adaptation to the overt and covert problems created by the social reaction toprimary 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 limitationsto his theory. Some of the strengths that his theory has is that from his acknowledgement of his twoideologies which illustrates that not all deviant behaviors are not all criminal, even though they areCritical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory6perceived in our society that all are criminal. Which is a major strength of his terms because it showshow a biased conjecture towards a person’s deviant and criminal acts could lead to wrongfulaccusations 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, butin reality, it was consensual and due to the bias that our society has.
When an allegation of that sortis taken seriously and can cause an innocent young man’s life to be ruined in a blink of an eyebecause 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 assumptionssurrounding their development elaborated” (Walters, 1990). Lemert’s terms of Deviance had somelimitations which was that the terms would steer more towards a further linear micro social world ofmeaning through the responses that of institutions such as social control agents, arrests and courthearing rather than focusing on the deviant act itself. As well as the fact that his terms even thoughhe 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 whatdeviant or criminal behavior actually involve.After reviewing Lermert’s terms of deviance within the labeling theory and his “socialpathology” my opinion of the merits of his work is simply this. I ultimately agree with his terms, as Igone more in depth of the terms and his work surrounding the terms. I came to the conclusion thatthe work is beneficial and does in a sense help to show and a person’s deviant behavior and can beadapted to various parts of criminology, sociology and psychology. Such as that I believe his termscan help to explain the possibility of what lead a person to commit a mass shooting, a murder, arobbery or any other crime.From his theory and terms, it could show that a label a person who committed murder gotfrom when they were a young child, stemmed to their behavior later in life because of beingCritical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory7misguided and acceptance of that label which lead them to a life of deviant behavior instead ofknowing the proper knowledge to stay away.
As well as the Lemert’s terms and work itself, in myopinion proves enough merit themselves for it to be a credible theory for stepping stones towards abetter understanding of what is a deviant behavior and what is not. Since his terms show that whatmay be perceived a deviant behavior only is because the fact that it goes against the social norm ofour society.Critical Analysis of Lemert’s Labeling Theory8ReferencesChegg. (2016, February 12). Labeling Theory Lesson.
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