Deviant Identity Essay

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Identities refer to the way people think of themselves. This is important in the field of deviance because if people conceive of themselves as deviant, they are more likely to engage in further deviant behavior. Central themes in the study of deviant identities include the ways that they develop, factors that foster their development, and consequences of having them.

The process of acquiring a deviant identity unfolds through seven stages. The point of departure, Becker (1963) suggested in Outsiders, is getting caught and publicly identified. Second, others begin to think of them differently. In light of this new information, others may engage in what Kitsuse (1962) called ”retrospective interpretation,” reflecting back onto individuals’ pasts to see if their current and earlier behavior can be recast differently. Third, as this news spreads, either informally or through official agencies of social control, individuals develop ”spoiled identities” (Goffman 1963: Stigma), where their reputations become tarnished. In Wayward Puritans, Erikson (1966) noted that once people’s identities are spoiled they are hard to socially rehabilitate. Individuals may thus find it hard to recover from the lasting effect of such identity labeling, and often find that society expects them to commit further deviance.

Fourth, Lemert (1951) noted in Social Pathology that the dynamics of exclusion then set in, where certain groups of people may not want to associate with the newly labeled deviants, who become ostracized from participation and membership with them. Fifth, Lemert discussed the dynamics of inclusion, which make people labeled as deviant more attractive to others. Their very acts may lead individuals interested or engaged in similar forms of deviance to seek them out. Thus, as people move down the pathway of their deviant careers, they shift friendship circles, being pushed away from the company of some and welcomed into the others’ company.

Sixth, others usually begin to treat those defined as deviant differently, often in a negative sense. Seventh, and finally, people react to this treatment using what Cooley (1902) referred to as their ”looking glass selves.” In the culminating stage of the identity career, they internalize the deviant label and come to think of themselves differently. This is likely to affect their future behavior. Although not all people who get caught in deviance progress completely through this full set of stages, Becker (1963) described this process as the effects of labeling.

While we all juggle a range of identities and social selves, Hughes (1945) asserted that a known deviant identity often assumes the position of a ”master status,” taking precedence over all others. Many social statuses fade in and out of relevance as people move through various situations, but a master status accompanies people into all their contexts, forming the key identity through which others see them. Master statuses are linked in society to auxiliary traits, the common social preconceptions that people associate with these. The relationship between master statuses and their auxiliary traits in society is reciprocal. When people learn that others have a certain deviant master status, they may impute the associated auxiliary traits onto them. Inversely, when people begin to recognize a few traits that they can put together to form the pattern of auxiliary traits associated with a particular deviant master status, they are likely to attribute that master status to others.

Exiting a deviant identity is considerably more problematic than assuming one in the first place. Avenues of opportunity, as Pager (2003: ”The mark of a criminal record”) showed, often close for those negatively marked. The route out of deviance, then, is often more gradual than precipitous, more solitary than social, more ascetic than pleasurable, and not easily attained.


  1. Cooley, C. H. (1902) Human Nature and Social Order. Scribner’s, New York.
  2. Hughes,    (1945)   Dilemmas   and contradictions of statements. American Journal of Sociology 50: 353—9.
  3. Kitsuse, J. (1962) Societal reactions to deviant behavior: problems of theory and method. Social Problems 9: 247-56.

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