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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 6, 1999
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Response to Lemert's Theory of Secondary Deviance
Initiated by Samuel Mark
jeanne's Summary Lecture on Lemert's Theory of Secondary Deviance
jeanne's Summary Lecture on Quinney's Definition of the Modern Welfare System
Minow on Unstated Assumptions

Response to Lemert's Theory of Secondary Deviance

Thread initiated by Samuel Mark, CSUDH, Fall 1999
Copyright: November 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.
Curran and Takata, Part of Teaching Series
Copyright: September 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

On November 6, Sam wrote:

Lemert's theory of secondary deviation reminds me of the homeless situation in downtown Los Angeles. Homeless people continue to deviate from the norm.  They don't work, sleep on the streets, and use the system to its fullest extent for benefits.  They are arrested for trespassing, begging and similar crimes, but due to the overcrowding of the jails they are released no sooner than they arrive at county jail.  There is little or no punishment for the crimes that are committed by the homeless, so the people continue to commit these crimes.

While there are numerous burglaries to businesses and autos, all are not committed by the homeless, but the homeless are blamed in a large number of instances.  There are opportunists that take advantage of this, knowing that the homeless will be blamed for these crimes.       

On November 6, jeanne wrote:

I agree that Lemert's theory of secondary deviance, or the ongoing interdependent social relationships that establish the social context in which the homeless presently exist, does come to mind as we consider this issue. But so also does Quinney's definition of the modern welfare state come to ming. To allow you to compare them and to recognize the underlying assumptions of each I added a lecture summary on the modern welfare state as Quinney defines it. Let's do an explication de texte, analyzing line by line.

  • Homeless people do deviate from the norm, which could be said to be the norm of working hard enough to provide minimal support for yourself and anyone for whom you are legally responsible.

  • But where does that norm come from? From the overall expectations created by those who make the rules, those who are successful.

  • Is that norm in fact neutral, producing rules in which all have been heard in good faith? What about the mentally ill, who were turned out of hospitals in California? What about those whose jobs were downsized and could not find others? What about those who have few or no social skills? What about those who are physically ill, tuberculosis, AIDS, etc.?

  • First on the list of deviance is "not working." Is that neutral? Are there jobs available at their skill level? Which were the first jobs to disappear in the current corporate swing to the use of foreign cheaper labor? (On this refer to William Julius Wilson's The truly Disadvantaged and later books. Refer also to David M. Gordon's Fat and Mean: the Downsizing of Corporate America.

  • Second on the list of deviance is "sleep on the streets." Is that neutral? Where would any of us sleep if we had no wealth and no family to whom we could turn? Is there a provision for shelter for people who have none? How adequate is that provision? How is it related to crime and safety?

  • Third on the list is that "they use the system to its fullest extent for benefits. Here, you need to read the modern welfare state, so that we agree on the terms we are using. There is here an implicit assumption that to use the benefits, even the meager benefits given in the modern welfare state, is somehow less than honorable. Hear that assumption. Imagine how it feels to be in a position in which you would be considered less than honorable for taking the only support available to you.

    But recognize also that we all read frequent stories about welfare fraud. There are dishonest and unethical people in this world. Some of them defraud the welfare system. More of them defraud us through such scams as occurred in the savings and loan industry and corporate theft and misuse of funds. But the homeless are visible. And their failure is visible. Is there an unstated presumption here that crime more effectively hidden is less of a crime?

  • Next, the crimes for which they are arrested are misdemeanors such as trespassing and begging. These are particularly visible crimes. The homeless are there, present, before us. Some local city councilmen tried to do citizen arrests to get them off the streets in one small town.

  • And there is rarely room for them in jail. First, jail might provide better shelter than they are presently afforded, but would probably afford little of the respect we all need. Second, whose fault is it that the jails are too crowded to take them? Hear the transference of guilt to the homeless for the failure of the society in which they failed to provide adequate space for the punishment of those who fail. Oh, my goodness. It is so easy to focus on the fact that "they" are always there, and not to realize that to many of us "they" are faceless and nameless, not brothers and sisters who have nowhere to sleep.

    The recognition of this assumption does not mean that in fact there are not many amongst the homeless who have pushed the limits and committed crimes. But amongst those crimes cannot be the lack of prison space.

  • Finally, "little or no punishment" for the crimes of the homeless. But they were little crimes: trespass and begging. And, in addition, Thorndike revoked his second law that punishment caused the extinction of unwanted behavior. So, maybe even if there were enough prison space, punishment might not serve our purpose.

  • In the next paragraph we are alerted to more serious crimes: burglaries of local businesses and autos. Yet here the perspective shifts, and we are told that not all such crimes are committed by the homeless. This is a clear indication that Sam is looking at this dilemma from both perspectives. The very fact that this is so should make it even clearer to you how easy it is to be trapped by unstated assumptions.

  • The homeless are unjustly blamed. But there is no suggestion here that the system must do something to right this injustice. It is already a big step to acknowledge the injustice, but hear the unstated acceptance that there is nothing we can do to stop this injustice.

I like the balance that Sam tried to introduce into this analysis of the homeless issue. Precisely because there are so many unstated assumptions this is a difficult issue. Hopefully facing the injustices and the real social contexts will help us deal with these issues more fairly someday.