Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviors as deviant or conventional. Labeling theory, differential association, social disorganization theory, and control theory fall within the realm of symbolic interactionism.
Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Those who do, however, have often been labeled “deviant” by society and have gradually come to believe it themselves. Labeling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviors themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviors. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures.
Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labeling theory and identified two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.
Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labeled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, he develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting out even more and breaking more rules; he has adopted the “troublemaker” label and embraced this deviant identity. Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts.
The Right to Vote
Before she lost her job as an administrative assistant, Leola Strickland postdated and mailed a handful of checks for amounts ranging from $90 to $500. By the time she was able to find a new job, the checks had bounced, and she was convicted of fraud under Mississippi law. Strickland pleaded guilty to a felony charge and repaid her debts; in return, she was spared from serving prison time.
Strickland appeared in court in 2001. More than ten years later, she is still feeling the sting of her sentencing. Why? Because Mississippi is one of twelve states in the United States that bans convicted felons from voting (ProCon 2011).
To Strickland, who said she had always voted, the news came as a great shock. She isn’t alone. Some 5.3 million people in the United States are currently barred from voting because of felony convictions (ProCon 2009). These individuals include inmates, parolees, probationers, and even people who have never been jailed, such as Leola Strickland.
Under the Fourteenth Amendment, states are allowed to deny voting privileges to individuals who have participated in “rebellion or other crime” (Krajick 2004). Although there are no federally mandated laws on the matter, most states practice at least one form of felony disenfranchisement. At present, it’s estimated that approximately 2.4 percent of the possible voting population is disfranchised, that is, lacking the right to vote (ProCon 2011).
Is it fair to prevent citizens from participating in such an important process? Proponents of disfranchisement laws argue that felons have a debt to pay to society. Being stripped of their right to vote is part of the punishment for criminal deeds. Such proponents point out that voting isn’t the only instance in which ex-felons are denied rights; state laws also ban released criminals from holding public office, obtaining professional licenses, and sometimes even inheriting property (Lott and Jones 2008).
Opponents of felony disfranchisement in the United States argue that voting is a basic human right and should be available to all citizens regardless of past deeds. Many point out that felony disfranchisement has its roots in the 1800s, when it was used primarily to block black citizens from voting. Even nowadays, these laws disproportionately target poor minority members, denying them a chance to participate in a system that, as a social conflict theorist would point out, is already constructed to their disadvantage (Holding 2006). Those who cite labeling theory worry that denying deviants the right to vote will only further encourage deviant behavior. If ex-criminals are disenfranchised from voting, are they being disenfranchised from society?
Edwin Sutherland: Differential Association
In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland sought to understand how deviant behavior developed among people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social interactions and group learning (Laub 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory, which suggested that individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. A tween whose friends are sexually active is more likely to view sexual activity as acceptable.
Sutherland’s theory may explain why crime is multigenerational. A longitudinal study beginning in the 1960s found that the best predictor of antisocial and criminal behavior in children was whether their parents had been convicted of a crime (Todd and Jury 1996). Children who were younger than ten years old when their parents were convicted were more likely than other children to engage in spousal abuse and criminal behavior by their early thirties. Even when taking socioeconomic factors such as dangerous neighborhoods, poor school systems, and overcrowded housing into consideration, researchers found that parents were the main influence on the behavior of their offspring (Todd and Jury 1996).
Travis Hirschi: Control Theory
Continuing with an examination of large social factors, control theory states that social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society. Individuals who believe they are a part of society are less likely to commit crimes against it.
Travis Hirschi (1969) identified four types of social bonds that connect people to society:
- Attachment measures our connections to others. When we are closely attached to people, we worry about their opinions of us. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval) from family, friends, and romantic partners.
- Commitment refers to the investments we make in the community. A well-respected local businesswoman who volunteers at her synagogue and is a member of the neighborhood block organization has more to lose from committing a crime than a woman who doesn’t have a career or ties to the community.
- Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s likelihood of deviance. Children who are members of little league baseball teams have fewer family crises.
- The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as beliefs, he or she will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park, because a clean environment is a social value to him (Hirschi 1969).
|Functionalism||Associated Theorist||Deviance arises from:|
|Strain Theory||Robert Merton||A lack of ways to reach socially accepted goals by accepted methods|
|Social Disorganization Theory||University of Chicago researchers||Weak social ties and a lack of social control; society has lost the ability to enforce norms with some groups|
|Cultural Deviance Theory||Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay||Conformity to the cultural norms of lower-class society|
|Conflict Theory||Associated Theorist||Deviance arises from:|
|Unequal System||Karl Marx||Inequalities in wealth and power that arise from the economic system|
|Power Elite||C. Wright Mills||Ability of those in power to define deviance in ways that maintain the status quo|
|Symbolic Interactionism||Associated Theorist||Deviance arises from:|
|Labeling Theory||Edwin Lemert||The reactions of others, particularly those in power who are able to determine labels|
|Differential Association Theory||Edwin Sutherlin||Learning and modeling deviant behavior seen in other people close to the individual|
|Control Theory||Travis Hirschi||Feelings of disconnection from society|
Summary of Theoretical Explanations of Deviance
The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and crime. Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to injustice in the system. Conflict theorists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at the top and those without power at the bottom. Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment and enforced or discouraged by those around us.
Review the theory of differential association, labeling theory, and strain theory again in the following video:
Think It Over
- Pick a famous politician, business leader, or celebrity who has been arrested recently. What crime did he or she allegedly commit? Who was the victim? Explain his or her actions from the point of view of one of the major sociological paradigms. What factors best explain how this person might be punished if convicted of the crime?
1. A student wakes up late and realizes her sociology exam starts in five minutes. She jumps into her car and speeds down the road, where she is pulled over by a police officer. The student explains that she is running late, and the officer lets her off with a warning. The student’s actions are an example of _________.
- primary deviance
- positive deviance
- secondary deviance
- master deviance
2. A convicted sexual offender is released on parole and arrested two weeks later for repeated sexual crimes. How would labeling theory explain this?
- The offender has been labeled deviant by society and has accepted a new master status.
- The offender has returned to his old neighborhood and so reestablished his former habits.
- The offender has lost the social bonds he made in prison and feels disconnected from society.
- The offender is poor and responding to the different cultural values that exist in his community.
- Secondary; does not
- Negative; does
- Primary; does not
- Primary; may or may not
- control theory:
- a theory that states social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society
- differential association theory:
- a theory that states individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance
- labeling theory:
- the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society
- master status:
- a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual
- primary deviance:
- a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others
- secondary deviance:
- deviance that occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society
Self-Check: Theories of Social Deviance
You’ll have more success on the Self-Check, if you’ve completed the three Readings in this section.