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The sociology of deviance entails two major perspectives, both of which emphasize the relative nature of the phenomenon. The normative perspective, which most sociologists adhere to, views deviance as being located in customs and rules; deviance is the formal violation of one or more norms. The reactivist perspective, which has been associated with the labeling theory of deviance, takes a more radical approach to the relative nature of deviance, and views the existence and characteristics of deviance in how real behaviors, beliefs, or conditions are actually judged by relevant audiences.
The reactivist perspective is commonly traced to the writings of historian Frank Tannenbaum (1938), who highlighted the nature of community reactions to juvenile delinquency as the ”dramatization of evil,” whereby the social definition of the behavior was attached instead to the people who behaved that way, making them more prone to take on a deviant (evil) role. A little over a decade later, sociologist Edwin M. Lemert (1951) greatly expanded upon this general idea, including broader conceptualizations that related symbolic interactionism to the study of deviance. His classic distinction between primary deviance (related to the original causes of deviant behavior, which he termed ”polygenetic,” or due to a wide range of causes) and secondary deviance (related to the effective causes, after labeling took place, and a person formed a deviant identity), and his insistence that reactions form the essential quality of the social reality of deviance, formed the basis for the reactivist definition of deviance.
”Strict” reactivists claim that in order for deviance to exist, the act, condition, or belief must first be heard about or witnessed, and second, must be met with concrete social disapproval, condemnation, or punishment. If these conditions are not satisfied, according to strict reactivists, deviance does not socially exist. If acts, beliefs, or conditions are known about and not reacted to as deviant, or if they remain hidden, makes no difference to strict reactivists. Real responses by audiences to concrete phenomena are what matter, and not the act, belief, or condition. Strict reactivists deny that audiences react to phenomena ”in the abstract,” that is, as classes of acts, beliefs, or conditions (Gibbs 1972). It is the real-life expression of some disapproval or condemnation of a specific act that defines deviance, according to strict reactivists.
Although Lemert’s work was among the most influential in what became known as the labeling perspective, it is quite clear that he was not a ”strict” reactivist. In his landmark work Social Pathology (1951), he acknowledges deviant acts that are ”clandestine,” have ”low visibility,” and ”escape the public eye.” That is, deviant forms can exist without actual reactions of audiences. What he does draw major intellectual attention to, however, is that socially visible deviations can attract a wide range of expressions and attitudes from a conforming majority. This entails an important dynamic process between doing deviance (for whatever reasons) and becoming a deviant (forming a deviant identity) that comprises the heart of the reactivist definition of deviance and the labeling perspective. He wrote that ”older sociology . . . tended to rest heavily upon the idea that deviance leads to social control. I have come to believe that the reverse idea, i.e., social control leads to deviance, is equally tenable and the potentially richer premise for studying deviance in modern society” (Lemert 1967: v).
Others theorists, most notably Howard Becker and Kai Erikson — the latter of whose work can also be placed within the functionalist school of thought — can be considered moderate reactivists. Unlike strict reactivists, they do not view deviance as simply residing in a concrete negative reaction to an actual behavior. Rather, moderate reactivists believe that the labeling process is crucial to understanding deviance as a social phenomenon and cannot be ignored scientifically.
Their approach centers on the problems inherent in the origins and consequences of labeling, which behaviors are condemned at different times and in different places, selectivity issues, the role and consequences of stigmatization, and the differences between known and secret deviants. In other words, the ”soft” or moderate reactivist argues that categories of deviance exist, even if specific actors, believers, and possessors of non-normative characteristics have not been concretely punished or labeled.
- Gibbs, J. P. (1972) Issues in Defining Deviance. In: Scott, R. A. & Douglas, J. D. (eds.), Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance. Basic Books, New York, pp. 39—68.
- Lemert, E. M. (1951) Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Study of Sociopathic Behavior. McGraw-Hill, New York.
- Lemert, E. M. (1967) Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Tannenbaum, F. (1938) Crime and the Community. Ginn, New York.
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