Labeling theory

Beginning in the 1950s with the work of people like Becker and Lemert (and continuing down to the present day in the pages of the journal, Social Problems), the symbolic interactionist approach to deviance began to focus on the way in which negative labels get applied and on the consequences of the labeling process. Edwin Lemert, for example, made a distinction between primary deviance and secondary 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. But when a negative label gets applied so publicly and so powerfully that it becomes part of that individual's identity, this is what Lemert calls secondary deviance. These dramatic negative labelings become turning points in that individual's identity; henceforth s/he is apt "to employ his or her deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the problems created the subsequent societal reaction." (Lemert) Having been processed by the juvenile justice system and labeled a delinquent, or harassed by the police as a gang member, the individual takes on that label as a key aspect of his/her identity.

Labeling theorists have also been concerned to identity the conditions under which labeling takes place, whether as crime or mental illness or homosexuality. Howard Becker began to analyze these conditions in his book, Outsiders, written in the 1950s. In Becker's terminology, those who take the lead in getting a particular behavior negatively labeled (or in getting a negative label removed) are called moral entrepreneurs. Moral entrepreneurs can be individuals (for example, Anthony Comstock, who in the 1860s waged an almost single-handed campaign to get Congress to pass laws against pornography, including birth control); organizations (in Becker's analysis of the origins of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, it is officials of the Treasury Department and the FBI who are most responsible for promoting legislation against mariujuana); or social movements (as with the battered women's movement, which changed both laws and practices relating to the treatment of spousal violence).

Labeling theorists have also examined the consequences of labeling in terms of people's subsequent lives. At the extreme are those who argue that a whole "deviant career" may well be the result of the misfortune of having been labeled. In other instances, as with the Chambliss reading, "The Saints and the Roughnecks," inequities in the labeling process are highlighted but without claiming that the label is the whole explanation of people's subsequent deviance.