The effects of labelling

Labelling theorists are also interested in the effects of labelling. Lemert argues that by labelling certain people as deviant, society actually encourages them to become more so; societal reaction causes secondary deviance.

Primary and Secondary deviance

Primary Deviance is when acts haven’t been publicly labelled. Those who commit them do not usually see themselves as deviant. Secondary deviance results from societal reaction. Labelling someone as an offender can involve stigmatising and excluding them from normal society. Other may see the offender solely in term of the label which then becomes their master status.

However, labelling theory fails to explain why people commit primary deviance in the first place, before they are labelled.


Being labelled then produces an SFP, resulting in secondary deviance. Further societal reaction may reinforce the individual’s outsider status and lead them to joining a deviant subculture that offers support and a deviant career. Young’s study of hippy marijuana illustrates these processes. Drug use was initially peripheral to the hippies’ lifestyle (PD) , but police persecution of them as junkies (SOCIETAL REACTION) led them to retreat into closed groups, developing a deviant subculture where drug use became central activity (SFP)

Deviance amplification spiral

The attempt to control deviance leads to it increasing rather than decreasing-resulting in greater attempts to control in which increases it.

Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Cohen)- mods and the rockers uses the concept of deviance amplification spiral.

  • Media exaggeration and distortion began a moral panic with growing public concern.
  • Moral entrepreneurs called for a crackdown; police responded by arresting more youths.
  • Demonising the mods and rockers and ‘folk devils’ marginalised them further which led to more deviance

The work of Cohen and Young points to a key difference with functionalism as they see deviance as producing social control and labelling theorists see control producing further deviance.