Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

B. Labeling Precursors

Although the ideas inherent in symbolic interaction work are at the core of the labeling perspective, it was Tannenbaum (1938) who first suggested their application to criminal behavior. In his discussion of a mostly subcultural theory of crime, Tannenbaum introduced the concept of the “dramatization of evil.” As he argued, “The dramatization of the ‘evil’ which separates the child out of his group for specialized treatment plays a greater role in making the criminal than perhaps any other experience” (p. 19).

When a child commits a deviant or criminal act, this child is segregated from other children. A child who has come to the attention of the neighborhood or the criminal justice system has thus been “tagged.” Tannenbaum (1938) provided the following description:

The entire process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing, and evoking the very traits that are complained of. (p. 19)

The person thus takes on the characteristic of the so-called tag. The “evil” that is trying to be contained by the criminal justice system is then further exacerbated. This was the first call for the deinstitutionalization of certain types of juvenile offenders.

As mentioned earlier, though, Tannenbaum (1938) was actually presenting his labeling approach through the framework of a subcultural theory of criminality. Tannenbaum noted that the isolation that ensues from a tag would lead an individual “into companionship with other children similarly defined, and the gang becomes his/her means of escape” (p. 20). Goffman (1963) later argued that people who have a “particular stigma tend to have similar learning experiences . . . a similar moral career” (p. 32). Tannenbaum’s policy arguments, based on the dramatization of evil, did not focus on individual offenders but instead attacked whole groups of offenders in an effort to change attitudes and ideals.

Lemert (1967) was the next to explore the intricate web of the self, society, and deviance. He introduced the concepts of societal reaction (1951) and primary and secondary deviance (1967). Lemert (1967) used the sociopsychological concepts of primary and secondary deviance to “distinguish between original and effective causes of deviant attributes and actions which are associated with physical defects and incapacity, crime, and mental disorders” (p. 40). He argued that primary deviance arose from a variety of social, psychological, cultural, and physiological processes.

Primary deviance consists of “initial acts of norm violations or crimes that have very little influence on the actor and can be quickly forgotten” (Cao, 2004, p. 135). Primary deviants undergo no change in their psychological makeup or in the way they act as members of society (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 182).When they are apprehended, however, primary deviants suffer a variety of consequences, many of which focus on the application to them of such labels as sick, criminal, insane, and so on (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 182). Thus, secondary deviance is caused by the way in which society reacts to some of the people who engage in primary deviance. Secondary deviance “refers to a special class of socially defined responses which people make to problems created by the social reaction to deviance” (Lemert, 1967, p. 40). Secondary deviance occurs when the individual reorganizes his or her personality around the consequences of the deviant act and to persistent forms of deviance around which people organize their lives (Cao, 2004, p. 135).

Secondary deviance is promoted through an internal process of normalization of behavior and a lack of social controls; this process creates, maintains, and intensifies stigmas that include invidious labels, marks, or publicly disseminated information (Goffman, 1963), which are akin to Tannenbaum’s (1938) “tags.” The drug experimenter becomes an addict; the recreational drinker becomes an alcoholic; the joy rider a car thief. As the society begins to recognize and sanction these behaviors, the application of the labels increases, or amplifies, instead of decreases, the act. Lemert’s (1967) concept of secondary deviance goes to the heart of labeling theory: deviance as identity transformation.

In an immediate precursor to Becker’s (1963) formulation of the labeling perspective, Kitsuse (1962) proposed a shift in “focus of theory and research from the forms of deviant behavior to the processes by which persons come to be defined as deviants by others” (p. 248). In his examination of homosexuality, Kitsuse collected data that suggested that the critical feature of the “deviant defining process” is not the actual individual’s behavior, but rather the interpretations other people have of those behaviors. Kitsuse concluded that criminological theory must contain not only propositions pertaining to behavior but also concepts relating to the reaction to behavior.