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Criminology Concepts, Fall 1999

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 5, 1999
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Concept 1: Lemert's Theory of Secondary Deviance

Information on this concept was taken from pp. 199-203 of Williams III and McShane's Criminology Theory.

Lemert suggests that deviance doesn't just happen, zap, with a single instance of behavior. He argues that there is first of all an act, perhaps mischievous, that deviates from the normatively expected behavior. That first act probably brings a reaction from the social context, since it violates norms. The reaction often involves admonition not to deviate again, and perhaps punishment. Other acts, and reactions, continue to occur. Lemert wisely suggests that some instances of deviance in this pattern are probably simply clumsy and unintended. Punishment and admonition for those acts may very well provoke a sense of being treated unjustly.

After a series of such interdependent interactions, eventually the person "begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to" the admonitions and prohibitions that behavior provokes. At that point, Lemert refers to "secondary deviance." (at p. 200)

What Jeanne Was Thinking About When She Wrote the Concept Questions

How does this reflect Habermasian interdependence?

For me, Lemert's concept of secondary deviance recalls the interdependence Habermas insists upon for public discourse. Habermas suggests that each person who shall be ruled by the system of law worked out at public discourse must hear every other person in good faith. Each affects the other, and the final result depends on their interactions with one another. No one individual has the power to shape the behavior of the other under the umbrella of interdependence. Each is intricately bound to the other, which is one plausible reason for insisting that each hear the other in good faith.

Lemert does not see the deviant as being shaped in a vacuum. He sees the deviant and the group to which he/she belongs as acting and reacting upon one another. We sometimes forget the extent to which we attempt to control others. Lemert reminds us of that.

How does this reflect a non-learning auto-poietic system?

Luhmann's description of an auto-poietic system is of a system that gains feedback at each stage, creating rules for its operation that can be applied to all, and creating rules for the adaptation of its rules to new contexts and situations. Habermas criticizes Luhmann's model as inappropriate for our system of law in that it provides no opportunity for feedback into the system by the people who are governed by its rules.

If using marijuana is defined as a crime, and we punish all those who use marijuana, and we have many people in jail as a result of this crime, Habermas' argument would be that Luhmann's auto-poietic system provides no information as to why these people continue to engage in this criminal act. A non-learning system increases punishment and sticks to its rules. A learning system begins to investigate why so many people do not respond to the rules, and looks for alternatives to make the whole system work better.

Why do we need to bother with such complex theory?

We need to bother with such complex theory because only when we distance ourselves from the local real time events and remove some of the affect associated with our behavior are we able to apply rational discourse for the most effective alternatives.