Ann Coulter was right when she said the essence of being a liberal is having one set of rules for oneself and an entirely different set of rules for other people. Similarly, it could be asserted that the essence of liberal arts education is developing one set of theories that apply only to other people. Few better examples can be found than in the case of labeling theory, which derives from the pseudo-science of sociology.
Frank Tannenbaum had a number of valid points when, in the 1930s, he established some basic premises of labeling theory. He argued that, as a juvenile, everyone engages in some form of delinquent behavior. And he correctly pointed out that not everyone who engages in delinquency is caught and, therefore, labeled “delinquent.”
Tannenbaum was also correct in saying that parents, teachers, and peers sometimes over-react to juveniles caught in an act of delinquency. He was again on firm ground in asserting that these occasional over-reactions could actually produce more delinquency.
Surely, those who are labeled delinquent are less likely to be invited to associate with those who haven’t. And ostracism from conformists can lead to delinquent associations where the strengthening of deviant tendencies can occur.
Writing just a few years after Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert did a lot to shape labeling theory into its present form. It is a form popular with progressives everywhere.
Lemert argued that people can engage in delinquency for any number of biological, sociological, or psychological reasons. Delinquency produced by any of these broad (categories of) factors is called “primary deviance.” But Lemert’s real contribution to various progressive causes (and socialist policies) flows from his explanation of a form of delinquency known as “secondary deviance.”
Lemert believed that if an individual was caught in an act of primary deviance, he was likely to be placed under greater subsequent scrutiny by parents, teachers, and various agents of social control. This, of course, meant the child was more likely to be caught engaging in delinquency again. Adopting Lemert’s premises, it is easy to understand how a vicious cycle could develop.
At some point, of course, the child might internalize the notion that he is a “deviant,” a “delinquent,” or just generally “bad.” This could lead to higher rates of delinquency. When it does, according to Lemert, “secondary deviance” has occurred. Many of us have come to dub this process, perhaps somewhat simplistically, as the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”