Edwin M. Lemert distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance. An individual first commits primary deviance. Through a process of labelling the individual is forced to play the role of deviant. As a reaction to this role assignment (“You are criminal!”), the labelled person adapts his behaviour according to the role assigned to him (“Then I am a criminal!”). This behaviour reaction is called secondary deviance.
In his book Social Pathology, published in 1951, Lemert developed the concept of secondary deviance. He developed this perspective further in 1967 in his book Human deviance, social problems, and social control. Although Lemert himself preferred the concept of social reaction to labeling, Lemerst’s distinction between primary and secondary deviance is a decisive development in the formulation of labelling theory.
Primary deviance arises from various socio-cultural and psychological causes. In other words, the term primary deviance describes deviant behaviour that occurs from a cause attributable to the perpetrator. While primary deviance is recognized as undesirable, it has no further effect on the status and self-image of the deviant(s). The deviant does not define himself by deviance, but rationalizes and trivializes it. Thus a positive self-image can be maintained, which goes hand in hand with one’s own role in society.
Secondary deviance is triggered by reactions that follow the primary deviance. The social reaction to deviant behaviour ensures that the deviant is stigmatised. These social reactions include the deviant being labelled as criminal. However, this label contradicts the self-image of the labelled person and is therefore not role-conform. In order to escape the resulting cognitive dissonance, the individual ultimately adopts the label “deviant” or “criminal” and adapts his or her future behaviour accordingly.
For Lemert, the transition from primary to secondary deviance represents a process of development. Increasingly stronger deviance is followed by ever stronger social reactions, which ensure that deviance solidifies.
Critical appreciation & relevance
The approaches of Edwin M. Lemert and Howard S. Becker are certainly among the most influential theories in (critical) criminology. The understanding that punishment and social sanctions can be paradoxical and cause further deviant behaviour has influenced a number of other theories, but labelling theories have also often been subject to criticism since their very inception.
In particular, Lemert’s theory can be criticized for not giving enough weight to primary deviance. It is questionable what part of deviant behaviour is really explained by Lemert’s theory. In particular, it seems questionable whether offences that can be characterized as secondary deviance do not only account for a small proportion. This point of criticism is increasingly being raised by advocates of positivist criminology. They often take the view that secondary deviance (if any) can explain only a relatively small proportion of criminal behaviour. For them, however, the question of why people begin to deviate at all is much more interesting.
From the other end of the political spectrum, Becker and Lemert’s approaches are criticized for assuming the existence of primary deviance at all. The radical labeling approach according to Fritz Sack, for example, assumes that deviance is ubiquitous. From this perspective, it is solely the process of labelling that is responsible for who we describe as criminal and who not.
Another criticism of labelling approaches is that they mostly only refer to certain ‘light’ forms of crime. It is questionable to what extent acts such as murder, rape or war crimes can really be regarded as criminal only because they are labelled as such. It is also questionable what role the aspect of labelling plays in ‘covert’ forms of deviance (e.g. tax evasion, child abuse).
Implications for criminal policy
Since labeling approaches assume that societal reactions to deviant behavior (can) have a reinforcing effect on it, they suggest that these forms of ‘labelling’ interventions should be avoided as far as possible.
Decriminalization, alternative conflict resolution models, and de-institutionalization are promising measures to prevent secondary deviance. The most important criminal policy implication of labelling theories is that ‘law and order’ and other intensive and repressive forms of policing can have a paradoxical, unintended effect – i.e. can lead to crime rates rising rather than falling.
John Braithwaite and Lawrence Sherman have also addressed the criminal policy implications of labelling theories in their concept of restorative justice.
- Lemert, Edwin M. (1951) Social Pathology: a Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. New York u.a.: McGraw-Hill.
- Obituary to Edwin M. Lemert: http://www.sonoma.edu/ccjs/info/Edintro.html
- Societal Reaction and the Contribution of Edwin M. Lemert