The Societal Reaction Perspective

Table of Content

This paper will primarily examine Edwin Lemert and Howard S.’s works, with a specific emphasis on the societal reaction perspective towards crime and deviance.

Becker and John Kitsuse’s works will be reviewed, comparing and contrasting their main arguments. Additionally, the societal reaction perspective, also referred to as the labeling perspective, will be examined in relation to illicit drug use. Edwin Lemert played a significant role in the development of the societal reaction perspective during the early 1950’s.

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He began with a concept that focused on how people make decisions based on their expenses and benefits. However, he recognized that decision-making is not entirely rational, as individuals can be influenced by external constraints. Lemert not only emphasized the actions of deviant individuals, but also examined how others respond to their deviance. The level of tolerance among these respondents towards deviance is a crucial factor in determining which actions will elicit a reaction.

Deviant behavior, including loitering and public begging, may be overlooked or deemed acceptable in some communities but would be regarded as deviant in others. The perception of deviance is subjective and varies depending on the values, standards, and timing within a particular community. As per Lemert’s perspective, deviance is a fluid process that can undergo changes over time.

According to Lemert, individuals have the potential to move from minor deviant acts, like petty theft, to more severe crimes such as armed robbery. Lemert also observed that most people participate in deviant behavior at some point but ultimately return to normal behavior for the majority of their lives. This understanding of deviance as a progression gave rise to the idea of primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to the initial act of deviant behavior and is typically brief in duration.

Most individuals engage in occasional deviant behavior, but not everyone escalates to the level of secondary deviance. The likelihood of progression depends on the public display and tolerance towards the act. The severity is determined by personal values. Secondary deviance entails continued participation in deviant behavior, often resulting in immersion in a deviant subculture. It becomes secondary when the individual defends, attacks, or adapts to problems caused by societal reactions using their deviant behavior or associated role.

It is important to mention that the transition into secondary deviance is not common and takes time. This process involves the recognition of primary deviance and the imposition of societal punishments. These penalties often trigger more instances of primary deviation, which society responds to with harsher penalties and rejections. These factors may ultimately drive the individual towards further deviant behavior and result in feelings of hostility and resentment.

When the reactors’ tolerance level is reached, they may face legal consequences in the form of criminal charges. This stigmatization will further amplify the perception of deviant behavior and encourage its continuation. Over time, the individual involved may come to embrace their deviant social status and even seek out a social circle that embraces this new identity. (Lemert, 1951) Howard S.

In his research, Becker drew upon the ideas of Lemert and was particularly impacted by the Chicago School of Criminology. Becker approached deviance as a subjective interpretation determined by those who label certain actions as deviant. He defined deviance as a sequential process rather than being solely influenced by pre-existing factors like personality traits. According to Becker, the initial step in this process involves the establishment of rules and social norms by the dominant socio-economic group.

Moral entrepreneurs engage in promoting and criticizing certain values, while also working towards establishing and maintaining standards for themselves and society. Becker’s model proposes that the subsequent step involves putting into practice and enforcing the established rules, deciding when particular behaviors are deemed deviant. Once an individual engages in a deviant act, they proceed to the third stage wherein they are identified as deviant through a labeling process influenced by diverse social factors like age, race, and economic status.

Deviance is determined by subjective judgments, but it also relies on objective factors such as the visibility of the deviant act, its impact on others, and societal norms regarding deviancy. The way a deviant individual is treated when interacting with others is referred to as differential behavior response. Society’s perception of their motivations influences how a deviant is treated if caught, and this treatment can actually fuel more deviant behavior. As a result, there may be an intensified societal reaction that leads to labeling an individual with a master status.

The master status of deviant is likely to lead to differing treatment in both formal and informal interactions. This may happen because the police might perceive the person as deviant and closely monitor them, thus increasing the likelihood of additional convictions. The individual’s criminal record could limit legitimate opportunities such as employment or access to credit, perhaps causing them to continue engaging in deviant activities for income. It may also be challenging for the person to have normal peer relationships as others may only see them through their master status as a deviant.

In order for the deviant to escape their master status, they must achieve something remarkable that causes others to see them in a new light. In 1962, John I. Kitsuse started to emphasize the process by which individuals are labeled as deviant, shifting away from solely focusing on their deviant actions. He highlighted that reality is not static or consistent; rather, it is perceived differently depending on the circumstances.

According to Kitsuse, deviance is a process consisting of three stages. First, individuals within a group, community, or society interpret behavior as deviant. This interpretation does not necessarily mean that the deviant behavior or attributes actually exist. In the second stage, deviance is defined and can be categorized in various ways, such as being labeled as a homosexual, drug addict, or juvenile delinquent. Finally, the third stage involves treating individuals differently based on their newly assigned deviant label.

Kitsuse further explains that in this stage, there is an occurrence of documentary interpretation where the reactors engage in searching for and redefining events related to the deviant as contributing factors and initial evidence of deviance. While Lemert, Becker, and Kitsuse all belong to the societal reaction perspective, there are notable differences. Lemert does not fully endorse symbolic interactionism or ethnomethodology, and he does not identify himself as a symbolic interactionist sociologist. The significant variance with Lemert is that he includes the concept of humans as decision-making individuals, but emphasizes the importance of direct sensory feedback in determining whether the individual would act accordingly.

This cost value analysis demonstrates that individuals may desire to make a particular choice but their ultimate decision to resist or comply depends on their analysis. Becker stands out from Lemert in that he is closely aligned with ethnomethodology. The key distinction between the two lies in Becker’s firm conviction in the significance of the master status label that arises from deviance. Becker utilizes the concept of master status to elucidate the occurrence of differential treatment, whereas Lemert discusses deviance in an impartial manner.

Kitsuse is a strict constructionist who views deviance as a subjective concept. According to Kitsuse, if deviance is not perceived, then it does not exist. Kitsuse also introduced the concept of documentary interpretation, which involves re-evaluating the deviant individual’s past to identify early warning signs of deviance. The societal reaction perspective can be used to explain drug use. Becker’s idea that deviance is a process can be applied to show that individuals must first learn, usually in the company of others, how to experience the effects of drugs.

The next step in the process involves understanding the effects of the drug and categorizing them as enjoyable. This process of deviant learning can explain illicit drug use, rather than taking into account other factors like personality traits. Kitsuse presents alternative explanations for drug use, such as society labeling users as deviant once their usage becomes known to others. Once this deviant label becomes known in the community, others may treat the users negatively and investigate their past for signs of previous drug use.

In this analysis, Lemert clarifies that the initial deviation can be unintentionally strengthened and result in further deviation. If the community consistently identifies the users as deviants, they will eventually adopt this perception and adjust their way of life accordingly. The portrayal of being a drug user becomes their predominant status, superseding any previous identity they may have had. This paper primarily examines Lemert’s perspective on societal responses to crime and deviance, which he developed alongside Howard S.

The texts of Becker and John Kitsuse were examined, focusing on their main arguments as well as comparing and contrasting their works. Subsequently, the societal reaction perspective, also referred to as the labeling perspective, was utilized to analyze illicit drug use as a form of deviance.

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The Societal Reaction Perspective. (2018, Mar 04). Retrieved from

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