Social Reaction Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 21, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, criminologists such as Howard Becker, Kai Erickson, John Kitsuse, and others began focusing on what they called social reaction theory, also called labeling theory, which stemmed directly from the works of Lemert (1951)

The study of societal reaction and other symbolic interactionism became a major driver of criminal behavior, which was a departure from traditional criminological theories, which presumed that criminal behavior drove societal reaction.

Labeling theory, for a short time, became a dominant idea in criminology, before a number of critiques targeted the empirical validity of many of the core assumptions of these theories.

For example, the effects of someone's daily experiences - such as family structure, social networks of acquaintances, educational attainment, and so forth - were assumed to be less important in determining the future likelihood of deviant behavior than being arrested or incarcerated.

Much research suggests that there are a large array of factors that determine deviant behavior beyond being labeled deviant. Developmental criminologists have revealed that many of these conditions occur well before official labels are applied, such as in early childhood, or even before birth.

Finally, developmental non-intervention, the policy that emerged from Lemert and the idea of primary deviance, increasingly became viewed as impractical and potentially dangerous (Rosenberg, 2010).

Despite all of these critiques and it's falling out of favor, Lemert's deviance concepts rejuvenated in the 1990s as more empirically sound theoretical frameworks based upon labeling theory emerged.

For example, John Braithwaite's (1989) theory of reintegrative shaming and Lawrence Sherman's defiance theory (1993).

While these theories still ignore the criminogenic factors that preceded labeling, they are valuable in that they refocus attention on the harmful effects of some reactions to crime.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

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This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 21). Social Reaction Theory . Simply Sociology.


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