Symbolic Interactionism and Deviance

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe and differentiate between symbolic interactionists’ approach to deviance

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviors as deviant or conventional. Labeling theory and differential association theory fall within the realm of symbolic interactionism.

Labeling Theory

Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Those who do, however, have often been labeled “deviant” by society and have gradually come to believe it themselves. Labeling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviors themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviors. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures.

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This video explains labeling theory and gives an example of a cancer patient who is interested in using medical marijuana. Depending on where she lives, her behavior may be labeled as deviant. And depending on her experience, she may begin to think of herself differently after repeated deviance, resulting in secondary deviance or a change in her master status.

Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labeling theory and identified two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.

Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labeled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, he develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting out even more and breaking more rules; he has adopted the “troublemaker” label and embraced this deviant identity. Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts.

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Differential Association Theory

One core premise of culture and socialization is that individuals learn the values and norms of a given culture and that this learning process is lifelong. This is particularly helpful when we think about deviance because differential association theorists apply this core premise to deviance. How many of you have committed a deviant act with someone else? A sibling? A friend? Consider something like underage drinking, which often occurs with peers and/or with older siblings. By the time many students arrive on college campuses (still underage), underage drinking has become normalized so that is seems “everyone” is doing it.

In criminology, differential association is a theory developed by Edwin Sutherland (1883–1950) proposing that through interaction with others, individuals learn the values, attitudes, techniques, and motives for criminal behavior. Differential association theory is the most talked-about of the learning theories of deviance. This theory focuses on how individuals learn to become criminals, but it does not concern itself with why they become criminals.

Differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding. This tendency will be reinforced if social association provides active people in the person’s life. The earlier in life an individual comes under the influence high status people within a group, the more likely the individual is to follow in their footsteps. This does not deny that there may be practical motives for crime. If a person is hungry but has no money, there is a temptation to steal. But the use of “needs” and “values” is equivocal. To some extent, both non-criminal and criminal individuals are motivated by the need for money and social gain.

Sutherland’s Nine Points

The principles of Sutherland’s theory of differential association can be summarized into nine key points.

  1. Criminal behavior is learned.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
  4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes techniques of committing the crime (which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes simple) and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law.
  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.
  8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.
  9. While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those needs and values, since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.
    a criminal silhouette icon
    Figure 1. Differential association theory predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking exceeds those for law-abiding.

An important quality of differential association theory is the frequency and intensity of interaction. The amount of time that a person is exposed to a particular definition and at what point the interaction began are both crucial for explaining criminal activity. The process of learning criminal behavior is really not any different from the process involved in learning any other type of behavior. Sutherland maintains that there is no unique learning process associated with acquiring non-normative ways of behaving.

One very unique aspect of this theory is that it works to explain more than just juvenile delinquency and crime committed by lower class individuals. Since crime is understood to be learned behavior, the theory is also applicable to white-collar, corporate, and organized crime.

One critique leveled against differential association stems from the idea that people can be independent, rational actors and individually motivated. This notion of one being a criminal based on his or her environment is problematic—the theory does not take into account personality traits that might affect a person’s susceptibility to these environmental influences.

The Right to Vote

A woman is shown voting at a voting booth.
Figure 2. Should a former felony conviction permanently strip a U.S. citizen of the right to vote? (Photo courtesy of Joshin Yamada/flickr.

Before she lost her job as an administrative assistant, Leola Strickland postdated and mailed a handful of checks for amounts ranging from $90 to $500. By the time she was able to find a new job, the checks had bounced, and she was convicted of fraud under Mississippi law. Strickland pleaded guilty to a felony charge and repaid her debts; in return, she was spared from serving prison time.

Cartogram showing mishapen states to show the disproportionate number of persons disenfranchised in each state. The Southern States of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and Florida are exceptionally large with rates between 2 to 10%. The Northern states such as Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are shown to have lower rates between <0.5% to 1.9%.
Figure 3. Cartogram of Total Disenfranchisement Rates by State, 2016. This Cartogram adjusts the size of the state to represent the number of persons disenfranchised in each state. You can see the the southeastern states have disproportionately high numbers of disenfranchised voters. Image from  “6 million lost voters”,

Strickland appeared in court in 2001. More than ten years later, she is still feeling the sting of her sentencing. Why? Because Mississippi is one of twelve states in the United States that bans convicted felons from voting (ProCon 2011).

To Strickland, who said she had always voted, the news came as a great shock. She isn’t alone. As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction which equates to approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population or 1 in every 40 adults [1] These individuals include inmates, parolees, probationers, and even people who have never been jailed, such as Leola Strickland.

While 1 in 40 voting age adults is disenfranchised, when we begin to break it down by racial and ethnic groups the picture becomes much more stark, as 1 in 13 African Americans are disenfranchised. Since felon disenfranchisement is a state-by-state law, African American disenfranchisement rates in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia now exceed 20 percent of the adult voting age population (Uggen, Larson, & Shannon 2016).

6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016 Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon October 2016

Map of U.S. showing number of disenfranchised African-Americans, shown as a percentage in each state. The southeastern states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida have the most, with 20% + of the population. The northeastern states Maine, Vermont, and Illinois have lower rates of about 0% to 1.9%.
Figure 4. African American Felony Disenfranchisement Rates, 2016. African American disenfranchisement numbers are high in many states, but in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, over 20% of the African American voting population is disenfranchised. Image from  “6 million lost voters”,

With two 21st century elections (2000 and 2016) in which the candidate with the most votes did not win (Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016), one of which led to an official recount (2000 Election), there has been increased pressure for states with prohibitive voting measures to examine them. Particularly in the State of Florida, a swing state, in which nearly 1.5 million individuals are currently disenfranchised post-sentence (Uggen, Larson & Shannon 2016). On January 23, 2018 Floridians for a Fair Democracy garnered 766,200 signatures to get an amendment on the 2018 ballot that would give the ability to vote back to Floridians with felony convictions that have completed their sentences. To see what happened track the results at the Brennan Center for Justice, which includes state by state updates on disenfranchisement.

Watch It

Watch the selected clip from this video to review the main theories held by symbolic interactionists to explain deviance.

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Think It Over

  • Is it fair to deny citizens the right to vote? What factors are important? Should this be a federal issue or a state issue? Using your sociological imagination, what other states’ rights issues have become federal or constitutional issues and why?


differential association theory:
a theory that states individuals learn deviant behavior from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance
labeling theory:
the idea that the ascribing of a deviant behavior to another person by members of society affects how a person self-identifies and behaves; related to self-fulfilling prophecy
master status:
a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual
primary deviance:
a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others
secondary deviance:
deviance that occurs when a person’s self-concept and behavior begin to change after his or her actions are labeled as deviant by members of society

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