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Societal Reaction Theory of Edwin M. Lemert

Although Lemert’s work is related to labeling theory, he was not influenced by the earlier writer’s works. The origins of labeling theory can be traced back to the work of three sociologists’ concepts regarding the concept of self and the effect that tagging or labeling can have on an individual’s self-concept. First, Charles Horton Cooley, in his book entitled Human Nature and the Social Order, presented a concept which he termed the "looking glass self" in which a person will react to others based upon his imagining how he appears to others. According to Cooley, there were three principal elements of the concept: "the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of the appearance, and some sort of self-feeling such as pride or mortification."(p. 152) Additionally, what moves us to pride or shame is the imagined effect of this reflection on the other’s mind. This social self can be called a "looking-glass self."In the book, Lemert purported to show that deviance was a product of the interaction between individuals and the reactions of society to them. He preferred to think of his perspective as that of societal reaction, not labeling. The best contribution of Lemert’s work to societal reaction and labeling theory was his distinction between primary and secondary deviance. According to Lemert, primary deviance occurs when an actor engages in norm-violating behavior without the individual viewing himself or herself as engaging in a deviant role. The deviations "...are rationalized or otherwise dealt with as functions of a socially acceptable role." (1951:75)

Secondary deviation, according to Lemert, occurs...
When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization (1951: 76).

At this point, the self-concept of the individual changes so that the self becomes consistent with the deviant role. The effect of this change in self-concept is that the deviant self-conceptions are reinforced by the negative labels, which, in turn, result from the continued engagement in deviant behavior.
The term societal reaction refers to the process by which societies respond to deviant behavior either informally or formally through official agents of social control (i.e. police, courts, corrections, etc.) (Lemert, 1974) He states that it is a "...very general term summarizing both the expressive reactions of others...and action directed to its control."(1967:41-2) Societal reactions may not cause the primary deviation, but once the deviant is so labeled, the very behavior which is complained of is continued through a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lemert argues that a single instance of deviance will more than likely not bring about a severe enough societal reaction for secondary deviation to occur. According to Lemert, there are eight stages in the process leading to secondary deviation. They are as follows: (1) primary deviation; (2) social penalties; (3) further primary deviation; (4) stronger penalties and rejections; (5) further deviation, perhaps with hostilities and resentment beginning to focus upon those doing the penalizing; (6) crisis reached in the tolerance quotient, expressed in formal action by the community stigmatizing of the deviant; (7) strengthening of the deviant conduct as a reaction to the stigmatizing and penalties; and (8) ultimate acceptance of the deviant social status and efforts at adjustment on the basis of the associated role. (1951:76) According to Lemert, the presence of a corroboration of a deviant self-conception and social reinforcement at every stage of the process of becoming a secondary deviant is necessary.
Lemert theorized that once an individual is labeled, society always would view the individual in that deviant context. The individual would thus accept the label and then continue in that deviant role. Moreover, this acceptance would change the self-concept of the individual and thus result in secondary deviance. He believed that "...deviance is established in social roles and is perpetuated by the very forces directed to its elimination or control." (1967:v)

However, the underlying theme throughout all of his work is that of social control. According to Lemert, social control refers to the "...notions that folkways, mores, and laws are the predominant means..." to control the actions and behaviors of the members of society. (1967:21) Lemert’s approach to the sociology of social control resembles that of Mead. (Winter, 1996:54) He saw his definition of social control as being twofold. First, a distinction must be made between passive and active social control. Passive refers to the maintenance of the social order through conformity of its members. Active social control refers to group interaction that lead to the "...implementation of goals and values." (1976:21) An in depth examination of social control will not be covered here.

For Lemert, the real source of deviance is in the creation and application of new rules. In the 1970s, he came to view the opposite of what he had previously written. He thought in the beginning that deviance came first and social control followed. The reverse idea is the one which he in turn came to believe - social control leads to deviance. (Winter, 1996:72)