This paper will focus on the societal reaction perspective to crime and deviance as developed in the works of Edwin Lemert, Howard S.
Becker, and John Kitsuse. In addition to highlighting their key arguments, their works will be compared and contrasted for differences. Finally the societal reaction perspective, also known as the labeling perspective, will be applied to a specific form of deviance, illicit drug use. Edwin Lemert was one of the first theorists to begin working on the societal reaction perspective, around the early 1950’s.
He started with an idea which looked at how individuals made choices in terms of their cost and value. His view of choice making was not completely rational however, as he acknowledged that individuals were susceptible to pressures and constraints of objective reality. Lemert not only placed emphasis on the deviant’s action, but he also studied the individuals who react to the deviance. The reactors tolerance quotient to deviance is perhaps one of the most significant factors in determining what will be reacted to.
In some communities, many acts such as loitering and public begging may go unnoticed because of a higher tolerance quotient. However the same behavior in other communities would result in the actors being labeled deviant, as the tolerance quotient of the reactors is much lower. What is labeled deviant is also contingent on the community’s values, standards, and when the deviance occurred. Lemert viewed deviance as an ongoing process that varied over time, and can undergo change.
An individual can progress from a act of deviance that would be considered small such as petty theft, and later move to something much more serious such as armed robbery. Also Lemert noticed that most individuals will enter into acts of deviance at some points in their life, and then will return to normal living for the majority of the time. The observation of deviation being a process helped lead to the development of primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the initial deviant behavior, and is short lived.
Most people will engage in this level of deviance from time to time, and will never proceed to secondary.Whether the act will proceed depends on how public the act is and what the tolerance quotient of the reactors is, because it is the individual set of alues that determine the severity of the act. Secondary deviance is the persistent involvement in deviance, and the possible submergence into a deviant sub-culture. The deviance becomes secondary “when the 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.
It should be noted that the transformation into secondary deviance is rare, as a lengthy process occurs. This process can be seen as the primary deviance being noticed, and the societal penalties. These penalties will often lead to further primary deviation, to which society will counter with stronger penalties and rejections. These may push the individual to further deviance, and may develop feelings of hostilities and resentment.
Once the tolerance level of the reactors is met, formal action may be taken in the form of criminal charges.This stigmatization will further increase the deviant image and the behaviors will persist. Eventually the deviant will accept the deviant social status, and may make further adjustments such as seeking out a social group which supports the new image. (Lemert, 1951) Howard S.
Becker built on the work of Lemert and was especially influenced by the Chicago School of Criminology. Becker looked at deviance as an interpretation of meaning as seen by the reactors who give the title of deviance to actors. Becker outlined deviance as being a process that is followed rather than the antecedent background factors, such as personality traits.The first stage in the process is the making of rules and social norms by the group which has the most socio-economic power.
Moral entrepreneurs actively campaign to have certain values promoted and denounced, and to try and create and enforce standards for themselves and society. The next stage in Becker’s process is the application and enforcement of the created rules, which is the determination of when, where, how and why certain acts will be deviant. Once a deviant act is noticed, the third stage is reached in which the individual is labeled.Who is labeled deviant is contingent on the deviant’s social characteristics such as their age, race, and economic status.
It is also contingent on objective factors such as the visibility of the deviant act, who is harmed, and what is considered to be deviant by society at that time. The final stage is the differential behavior response the newly labeled deviant may experience when interacting with people. Once a deviant is caught, “he is treated in accordance with the popular diagnosis of why he is that way, and the treatment itself may likewise produce increasing deviance. 2] The increasing deviance, and resulting societal reaction may lead to the branding of a master status.
The master status of deviant will most likely result in the differential treatment from both formal and informal interactions. This can occur because the police may now see the individual as a deviant and keep a closer watch on them, which will increase the chance of further convictions. The criminal record may close doors on legitimate opportunities such as employment or access to credit, which may force the individual to continue to pursue deviant activities for income.Informal interactions such as having a normal peer group may prove difficult as many see only the master status.
In order for the deviant to overcome their master status they would have an enormously positive accomplishment, for others to re-label the individual for their new achievement. John I. Kitsuse in 1962, began to shift the focus from the deviant acts to the process by which individuals become labeled deviant. He stressed that reality is not fixed or stable, but rather it is interpreted differently depending on the situation.
Kitsuse viewed deviance as a three stage process in “which the members of a group, community or society interpret behavior as deviant, define persons who so behave as a certain kind of deviant, and accord them the treatment considered appropriate to such deviants. ”  In the first stage in which deviance may be conceived, it is important to note that the deviant behaviors or attributes do not necessarily have to exist, their just has to be an interpretation that the behavior did exist. The second stage, in which the deviance is defined, can take many forms such as a homosexual, a drug addict or juvenile delinquent.The third stage is characterized by the differential treatment of the individual on the basis of their new deviant label.
Kitsuse also explains that during this stage documentary interpretation occurs, in which the reactors will search, and redefine events involving the deviant as contributing factors, and early evidence of the deviance. Although the work of Lemert, Becker and Kitsuse are all within the societal reaction perspective, there are some differences worth noting. Lemert does not fully embrace symbolic interactionism or ethnomethodology, and he does not even consider himself to be a symbolic interactionist sociologist.The main difference with Lemert is that he incorporated the idea of humans as choice making individuals, but with the notion of direct sensory feedback being crucial in determining whether or not the individual would follow through.
This cost value analysis explains that although a person could wish to make a certain choice, they could either resist or comply, depending on their analysis. Becker can be seen as unique from Lemert in the sense that he fully identified with ethnomethodology. His main difference stems from his strong belief in the role of the master status label that is formed from the process of deviance.Becker’s use of master status helps him explain how the differential treatment occurs, while Lemert speaks of deviance in an objective sense.
Kitsuse, as strict constructionist, introduced the notion of deviance as being a completely subjective phenomenon, where if deviance is not perceived, then no deviance occurs. He is also unique in the respect that he introduced documentary interpretation, where a re-evaluation of the deviant’s past history occurs to search for early warning signs of the deviance. The societal reaction perspective can be applied in a number of ways to explain how someone could be a user of illicit drugs.Becker’s notion of deviance as a process can be applied to explain that individuals must first learn, in the company of others, to get the effects from the drug.
The next stage in the process is learning to interpret the effects as linked with the drug, and then to define this as a pleasurable experience. This learning process of deviance can be used to explain illicit drug use, as opposed to any background factors such as personality traits.  Kitsuse could offer other possibilities to explain the drug use, such as the labeling of the users as deviant once the usage is perceived by other members of the community.Once this deviant label was known throughout the community, the reactors may begin to treat the users negatively, and may examine their past for possible signs of the drug use earlier on.
Lemert could help finalize this analysis by explaining that the primary deviation, may be inadvertently reinforced and may lead the users into secondary deviation. Eventually, if the community treated the users as deviants often enough, the users would accept this image, and alter their lifestyle to accommodate this image.The image of drug user would serve as a master status, and would override any previous identity the user may have had. This paper focused on the societal reaction perspective to crime and deviance as developed in the works of Edwin Lemert, Howard S.
Becker, and John Kitsuse. In addition to highlighting their key arguments, their works were compared and contrasted for differences. Finally the societal reaction perspective, also known as the labeling perspective, was applied to a specific form of deviance, that of illicit drug use.
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