The symbolic-interaction paradigm explains how people define deviance in everyday situations. From this point of view, definitions of deviance and conformity are surprisingly flexible.


The central contribution of symbolic-interaction analysis is labeling theory, the assertion that deviance and conformity result, not so much from what people do, as from how others respond to those actions. Labeling theory stresses the relativity of deviance, meaning that people may define the same behavior in any number of ways. Howard S. Becker claims that deviance is, therefore, nothing more than behavior that people define as deviant (1966:9).

Consider these situations: A woman takes an article of clothing from a roommate’s drawer; a married man at a convention in a distant city has sex with a prostitute; a mayor gives a big city contract to a major campaign contributor. We might define the first situation as carelessness, borrowing, or theft. The consequences of the second situation depend largely on whether the man’s behavior becomes known back home. In the third situation, is the official choosing the best contractor or paying off a political debt? The social construction of reality, then, is a highly-variable process of detection, definition, and response.

At a broader level, since “reality” depends on time and place, it is no surprise that one society’s conformity may be another’s deviance. Consider, for example, cockfighting, described in the box on page 140. Is this popular sport an important cultural ritual or a vicious abuse of animals?


Edwin Lemert (1951, 1972) observed that some norm violations—say, skipping school or underage drinking—provoke slight reaction from others and have little effect on a person’s self-concept. Lemert calls such passing episodes primary deviance.

But what happens if people take notice of someone’s deviance and make something of it? If, for example, people begin to describe a young man as a “boozer” and evict him from their social circle, he may become embittered, drink even more, and seek the company of those who approve of his behavior. So the response to initial deviance can set in motion secondary deviance, by which an individual repeatedly violates a norm and begins to take on a deviant identity. The development of secondary deviance is one application of the Thomas theorem (see Chapter 4, “Social Interaction in Everyday Life”), which states that situations people define as real become real in their consequences.


Secondary deviance marks the start of what Erving Goffman (1963) called a deviant career. As individuals acquire a stronger commitment to deviant behavior, they typically acquire a stigma, a powerfully negative label that greatly changes a person’s self-concept and social identity. Stigma operates as a master status (see Chapter 4), overpowering other dimensions of identity so that a person is discredited in the minds of others and, consequently, becomes socially isolated. Sometimes an entire community stigmatizes an individual through what Harold Garfinkel (1956) calls a degradation ceremony. A criminal prosecution is one example, operating much like a high school graduation in reverse: In this instance, a person stands before the community to be labeled in a negative rather than a positive way.

Once people stigmatize a person, they may engage in retrospective labeling, a reinterpretation of a person’s past in light of some present deviance (Scheff, 1984). For example, after discovering that a priest has sexually molested a child, others rethink his past, perhaps musing, “He always did want to be around young children.” Retrospective labeling distorts a person’s biography by being highly selective, a process that can deepen a deviant identity.

Similarly, people may engage in projective labeling of a stigmatized person. That is, people use a deviant identity to predict future action. Regarding the priest, people might say, “He’s never going to change.” The more people think such things, of course, the greater the chance that they will come true.