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Understanding Secondary Deviance and Labeling Theory: Exploring the Complexities of Deviant Behavior

Deviance is an issue that has troubled human society for centuries. It is deemed to be a violation of social norms and values, which leads to a harsh response from society.

As a result, deviants are stigmatized and are bound to a life of discrimination, rejection, and isolation. In this context, Edwin Lemert, an American sociologist, discussed the concept of secondary deviance and labeling theory to understand the process of social reaction to deviant behavior.

This article discusses the complex ideas related to secondary deviance and labeling theory, including their definitions, examples, and implications for criminal policy.

Secondary Deviance


According to Edwin Lemert, secondary deviance is the process of adopting deviant behavior as a response to societal reactions to an initial deviant act. In other words, after a person is labeled as a deviant due to an act of deviance or crime, the label becomes a stigmatizing force.

The person becomes more strongly associated with deviant behavior, which creates a deviant identity and ultimately leads to a deviant career.

Primary vs

Secondary Deviance:

Lemert suggests that primary deviance is an initial act of deviance or crime that is relatively minor in nature and can be thought of as normal adolescent behavior.

However, when the person is labeled as a deviant, the individual faces social consequences that act as a stigmatizing force. Secondary deviance, then, is the resultant deviant behaviors that arise from the labeling process.

Thus, Lemert posits that being labeled is crucial in understanding why individuals continue to act in a deviant manner despite the social consequences associated with deviant behavior. Example of

Secondary Deviance:

Lemert provides the example of the “errant schoolboy” to exemplify the process of secondary deviance.

An adolescent steals a pencil from a store, and a teacher notices it. The teacher labels the student as a thief and punishes him, which labels him a deviant in the school’s eyes.

Because of this labeling, the student stops trying to conform to the student body’s norms and instead joins the ‘bad kids’ at the school’s margins. This newly-formed subculture of ‘bad kids’ reinforces his deviant behavior, and he continues to act inappropriately while seeing himself as a deviant.

This process solidifies the student’s deviant identity and career. Implications for Criminal Policy:

Secondary deviance and labeling theory have important implications for criminal policy.

According to Lemert, societal reactions that stigmatize any individual labeled a ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’ only exacerbate deviant behavior. Therefore, criminal policy should aim to reduce labeling and stigmatizing processes.

This can be done by more indirect or restorative measures as opposed to strictly punishing the individual. Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interactionism contend that labeling only perpetuates the belief that one is a criminal/deviant, and so labeling theory offers the rationale behind why low recidivism rates for burglars can be attributed to more lenient sentencing in some countries.

Edwin Lemert and Labeling Theory

Edwin Lemert’s work:

Edwin Lemert was an American sociologist whose work has significantly influenced the study of deviance in sociology. Rather than looking at deviance as a function of the individual’s personality or biology, Lemert viewed deviance as a consequence of social processes.

Lemert introduced the concepts of primary and secondary deviance, which helped sociologists and criminologists to understand why individuals continue to act in a deviant way. Labeling theory:

Lemert’s work is integral to labeling theory, a theory that posits that society’s reactions to an act, such as labeling the actor as a ‘thief’ or ‘criminal,’ create a deviant identity that continues deviant actions.

This labeling and stigmatization confirm other people’s negative views of the individual and discourage the person from conforming to society’s standards. Labeling theory plays an important role in understanding how society impacts individuals’ identities and actions, particularly in relation to those who are deemed as deviant.


Edwin Lemert’s contributions to the field of sociology and criminology are significant, particularly regarding the concept of secondary deviance and labeling theory. Secondary deviance has important implications for criminal policy, and the labeling theory helps sociologists understand how social reactions create deviant identities.

Overall, Lemert’s work has been discussed and referenced in sociological circles for its contributions to understanding deviance as a social phenomenon rather than a personal disorder. Labeling theory, in particular, helps explain how an individual can become stigmatized and demonstrates the potential harm associated with stigmatization to those who are deemed as ‘deviant.’In continuation of the discussion of Edwin Lemert’s

Secondary Deviance and Labeling Theory, this article expands into other relevant works and authors who have contributed substantially to the field of criminology and sociology.

This article will delve into each author’s works, theories, and their relationship to labeling theory and deviant behavior.

Other Relevant Works

Howard S. Becker:

Howard S.

Becker is another prominent sociologist recognized for his work on labeling theory and deviant behavior. In his book “Outsiders,” Becker explains that social groups create deviance by identifying particular behaviors as deviant, and labeling those who commit these acts as outsiders.

Becker also emphasizes that what is considered deviant is often determined by the social status of the individual or group committing the act, rather than inherently deviant. Hence, labeling is a socially constructed process that reinforces social norms and values.

Becker’s work complements Lemert’s work on secondary deviance, adding to the framework by which we understand how social processes construct deviant identities. Hence the comparison between the two theorists and their work is inevitable.

Both theorists claim that it is not the individual’s initial act that defines them as a deviant; rather it is the label society assigns to them.

John Gunnar Bernburg:

John Gunnar Bernburg is another sociologist and criminologist whose work aligns with labeling theory.

Bernburg’s work emphasizes the role of stigmatization in shaping individuals’ deviant behavior. He argues that social stigma acts as a permanent reminder of one’s deviance and reinforces deviance by creating socially isolated individuals with limited access to conventional norms and values.

Bernburg’s work is also critical in establishing a connection between labeling theory and social control theory. Social control theory argues that society’s formal and informal control mechanisms prevent people from engaging in deviant behaviors.

Bernburg argues that stigmatization weakens these control mechanisms, as it removes the person from social groups that underpin social controls. Thus, stigmatization weakens informal social controls, leading to an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior.

Other References:

Other authors who have contributed to theories emphasized in the Lemert-Becker and Bernburg discourse include Marvin D. Krohn, Alan J.

Lizotte, Gina Penly Hall, Reinhard Paternoster, Lori Iovanni, Edward Schur, Brian Thorsell, and Larry Klemke. Their works further complement the theories of labeling and secondary deviance by contributing to the epistemological debates on crime and deviance.

For instance, Krohn and Lizotte’s work on the role of social bonds in preventing delinquency confirms the hypothesis of social control theory, which argues that developing a relationship with family and peers reduces the likelihood of deviant behavior. Schur’s works question the criminal justice system’s ability to adequately categorize these deviants and to provide care to those who deserve it, bringing attention to the transforming landscape of the criminal justice system.

Other relevant works that have helped shape the study of crime and deviance include “The Duality of Human Existence” by Robert K. Merton, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” by Erving Goffman, “Crime and Stigma” by Erving Goffman, among several others.

These works represent significant contributions to the study of deviance-based processes and theoretical advancements in sociology, criminology, and law and society. Conclusion:

Edwin Lemert’s secondary deviance and Becker’s labeling theory significantly contributed to establishing deviant behavior as a socially constructed process that reinforces societal norms and beliefs related to crime, thus creating the stigmatic label associated with criminal activity.

The expansion into John Gunnar Bernburg’s work on stigmatization and the contributions of several other authors helps give a broader perspective on the interconnected theoretical framework of deviance-based processes. While offering alternative viewpoints on the subject of labeling and stigmatization, these researchers explore the social process’s intricacies and the implications of labeling processes’ historical and theoretical contexts.

The development of these theoretical perspectives on crime and deviance continues to provide an essential foundation for scholars to understand the intricacies of criminal behavior, social deviance, and the ramifications of labeling practices for social control and the criminal justice system. Conclusion:

In conclusion, this article covered the complex ideas related to secondary deviance, labeling theory, and other relevant works.

Edwin Lemert’s contribution to sociology and criminology is significant as it recognizes deviance as a product of social processes that can permanently shape an individual’s identity. Other prominent sociologists, such as Howard S.

Becker and John Gunnar Bernburg, have complemented Lemert’s work, providing a more comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding deviant behavior, labeling, and social control. Overall, the study of deviance-based processes continues to be a crucial area of research, providing insight into the social problems that drive the criminal justice system to this day.


Q. What is the difference between primary and secondary deviance?

A. Primary deviance is the initial act of deviance, while secondary deviance is the resultant deviant behaviors that arise from labeling the individual as deviant.

Q. What is labeling theory?

A. Labeling theory posits that people are labeled as deviants when they engage in behavior deemed as deviant, often due to societal reactions.

Q. What is stigmatization?

A. Stigmatization is the process of being branded as different or undesirable by society, often leading to discrimination and exclusion.

Q. How has the study of deviance evolved over time?

A. The theoretical perspectives related to deviance-based processes have evolved significantly over time, emphasizing the social, historical, and cultural contexts that drive criminal behavior.

Q. Why is understanding labeling and secondary deviance important?

A. The labeling and stigmatization of individuals can impact their lives significantly, leading them to internalize negative self-concepts and alienating them from society.

Q. What is social control theory?

A. Social control theory posits that social bonds with family and peers prevent individuals from engaging in deviant behaviors.

Q. What are the implications of labeling and stigmatization for the criminal justice system?

A. Labeling and stigmatization of individuals have significant implications for criminal policy, as harsh policies may intensify deviant behaviors, reinforcing the social and economic conditions that drive criminality.

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