Frank Tannenbaum:  “Dramatization of Evil”


Kerry Townsend





*  Introduction:

          The central power of any theory lies in its ability to explain the behavior of some phenomenon or phenomena.  Frank Tannenbaum’s theory, dramatization of evil, explains the making of a criminal and the lure of criminal behavior.  In order to appreciate this theory a discussion of the foundations from which it emerged is necessary.  Additionally, a summary of the central tenets, and criticisms of Tannenbaum’s theory enhances the understanding of it.  Lastly, if the theory’s power of explanation is strong it is evident in the continued usage and modification of the theory.     


*  Historical Foundations:

          The roots of Frank Tannenbaum’s theoretical model, known as the “dramatization of evil” or labeling theory, surfaces in the mid- to late-thirties.  At this time, the “New Deal” legislation had not defeated the woes of the Great Depression, and, although dwindling, immigration into the United States continued (Sumner, 1994).  The social climate was one of disillusionment with the government.  The class structure was one of cultural isolationism; cultural relativity had not yet taken hold.  “The persistence of the class structure, despite the welfare reforms and controls over big business, was unmistakable” (Sumner, 1994: p. 117).  The Positivist School of Criminological thought was still dominant, and in many states, the sterilization movement was underway.  The emphasis on biological determinism and internal explanations of crime were the preeminent force in the theories of the early thirties.  This dominance by the Positivist School changed in the late thirties with the introduction of conflict and social explanations of crime and criminality.

In 1937, the broad shifts in sociological theory and American society precipitated a radical shift in criminological thought through a unique convergence of “psychoanalytically aware sociology and sociologically aware psychiatry” (Summer, 1994: p. 104).  The Chicago School of Sociology, the leading school for the development of criminological and sociological theories of the time, began its rejection of the Lombrosian criminal and the positivist school, as well as, its consequences.  A rejection of the “anti-relativistic” elements in the Positivist School, combined with an emergence of critical assessments of the government institutions established to control crime helped in the establishment of a new school of thought (Cullen & Cullen, 1978).  The idea that deviance is an absolute state and that a person can be inherently deviant began to lose support among the leading sociologists of the thirties (Cullen & Cullen, 1978).  “Several major sociological publications emerged using the terms deviate, deviant, and deviation” (Sumner, 1994: p. 118).  The terminology of deviance gradually began to replace the existing concepts of individual pathology in criminological and sociological thought.  With this turn in the criminological tide, there was a new expression of the understanding of social conflict, rooted firmly in the American experience of the Great Depression, immigration, cultural diversity, extensive organized crime and popular psychology (Sumner, 1994).

By 1938, the theory of “Symbolic Interactionism”, a perspective emphasizing individual levels of interaction, began to emerge spearheaded by the writings of George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley (Adler & Laufer, 1993; Shoham, 1970).  These writings later became the foundation of Societal Reaction theories, Frank Tannenbaum’s writings included.  Many of the theorists that adopted the societal reaction explanation of crime drew heavily from these two theorists.   Cooley is best known for the development of the “looking-glass self” concept; he argued that our understanding of ourselves is primarily a reflection of our perceptions of how others react to us.  Mead elaborated upon this concept by focusing attention on the interaction between an emerging self and the perceptions of others reactions to that self.  “Mead’s concept of the “I and the Me” represented attempts to describe the way in which the individual both effects and is effected by the social environment through the process of interpretation” (Adler & Laufer, 1993: p. 4). 

In these two concepts are the origins for Tannenbaum’s theories.  He attempted to expand the ability of these theories in explaining criminal behavior.  A labor historian and authority on Latin America, Tannenbaum called for stability, equity, justice, peace, and a healthy dose of critical self-examination (Sumner, 1994).  Tannenbaum proposed to expand these theories by focusing on what transpires after an individual is caught and identified as having violated a law (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 1991; Thornberry, 1997).  This process of societal reaction to illegal behavior was termed ‘the dramatization of evil’.  Frank Tannenbaum’s book, Crime and the Community, contained probably the strongest statement of the intellectual themes and radical implications of 1930’s American sociology.  It outlined the “first ever version of what later became know as Labeling Theory, or amplification of deviance” (Sumner, 1994: p. 124)



*  Summary of Tannenbaum’s Theory:



Frank Tannenbaum (1938) states that, “from age to age the conduct of society toward the criminal has differed in accordance with the underlying assumption of the prevailing theory.”   This is an appropriate statement for the opening of Tannenbaum’s theoretical model because his theory comes at a time when the “underlying assumptions” of what constitutes criminality are beginning to shift.  The focus changes from what is inside the individual to what in society or the environment of the individual creates the need for deviant behavior.  Tannenbaum’s model becomes the forerunner in the explanation of crime from the perspective of how society creates the criminal.  In addition, Tannenbaum offers suggestions for improvements of the existing institutions dedicated to criminal justice.    

Tannenbaum argues for a rejection of the old ideas of good and evil by criminologists and criminological thought.  The underlying causes of criminality, contends Tannenbaum, are deeper than what lies in the individual.  The causes of criminality truly lie is in the inability to accept deviation from the “normal”.  The projection of the idea of normal or good is merely the passing of a moral judgment upon our own habits and way of life.  The deviant challenges our scheme of habits, institutions, and values.  Society excludes and sets the deviant apart from the group to ensure that order is not threatened (Tannenbaum, 1938).  According to Tannenbaum (1938), even the mildest of the current theories assume that the criminal is an unsocial creature because he cannot “adjust” to society.  Instead of making this assumption, Tannenbaum (1938), suggests we think of crime:

 “As a maladjustment that arises out of conflict between a group and the community at large.  The issue involved is not whether an individual is maladjusted to society, but the fact that his adjustment to a special group makes him maladjusted to the large society because the group he fits into is at war with society” (Tannenbaum, 1938: p. 8).


As opposed to the previous theories, which held that crime was an individual occurrence and therefore dealt with on an individual level, Tannenbaum challenges one to look at criminality on the group level.  Most delinquencies are committed in groups; most criminals live in, operate within, and are supported by groups.   The question to answer is how that group grew into a conflict group and of how the individual became adjusted to that group rather than to some other group in society (Tannenbaum, 1938).  Interestingly, this point of view parallels and reflects the work of George H. Mead.  Tannenbaum contends “a person’s peculiar physical or psychic characteristics may have little bearing on the group with which he is in adjustment” (Tannenbaum, 1938: p. 9).

The question is not how one is distinguished in his nature from a non-criminal, but how he happened to be drawn to a criminal group and why that group is in conflict with society.  Criminal behavior, argues Tannenbaum (1938), as part of the random movement of children in a world of attitudes and organized institutions that stamp and define the activities of the children.  The career of the child criminal is a selective process of growth within that environment, while the adult criminal is the product and summation of a series of continued activities and experiences.  There is a progression from simply being a truant child to a delinquent, and later to a criminal.  In the growth of this career is to be found the important agency of the gang.  The playgroup becomes the gang through coming into conflict with some element in the environment (Tannenbaum, 1938).  Once the gang develops, it becomes a serious competitor with other institutions as a controlling factor of the individual’s behavior.

The group is important because the reaction of others is the source of the greater part of the individual’s conduct.  Conduct of the individual is learned, in the sense that it is a response to a situation by other people.  It is not essential that the whole world approve; it is only essential that the limited world to which the individual is attached approve (Tannenbaum, 1938).  Once the differentiation of the gang takes place, it becomes another force that the child seeks the approval of, along with parents and teachers.  However, what is approved in one place is condemned or derided in another.  Behavior becomes a matter of choice as to whose approval one wants the most.  The more differentiation in the community, the greater the heterogeneity of the population, the less internal unity and sympathy, the greater the ease with which gangs form (Tannenbaum, 1938).  “Gangs are not merely spatial relationships but they are social relationships…the range of conflict within the individual finds an outlet, recognition, and companionship within the gang” (Tannenbaum, 1938: p. 17)

In the conflict between the delinquent and the community, there develop two opposing definitions of the situation.  According to Tannenbaum, there is a gradual shift from the definition of the specific acts as evil to a definition of the individual as evil; so all acts come to be looked at under suspicion.  From the community’s point of view, the individual who conducted bad and mischievous things is viewed as a bad and “unredeemable” human being.  From the individual’s point of view, there has been a similar change: the recognition that the definition of the individual as a human being is different from that of others in the neighborhood, the school, and the community.  This recognition on the individual’s part becomes a process of self-identification and integration with the group that shares the activities.  The young delinquent becomes bad because he is defined as bad.  Once this reputation is established, unconsciously all agencies combine to maintain this definition, even when they apparently and consciously attempt to deny their own implicit judgment (Tannenbaum, 1938).

“The first dramatization of ‘evil’, which separates the child out of the group for specialized treatment, plays a greater role in making the criminal than perhaps any other experience.  It cannot be too often emphasized that for the child the whole situation has become different.  The individual is now lives in a different world, and has been tagged” (Tannenbaum, 1938: p. 19).  According to Tannenbaum, the process of making the criminal is one of tagging, defining, making conscious and self-conscious, stimulating, suggesting and evoking the very traits that are complained of.  In short, the person becomes the thing they are described as being.  The solution, Tannenbaum (1938) states simply, is to refuse to dramatize the evil.  Therefore, when dealing with the criminal the important thing is to remember that one is dealing with a human being who is responding normally to the demands, approval, and expectations of the group to whom they are associated.   The “attack” must be one on the whole group; only by changing its attitudes and ideals can the stimuli, which it exerts upon the individual, be changed (Tannenbaum, 1938).

With these tenets in mind what should the response of society and the criminal justice system toward crime and the criminal be?   Tannenbaum is realistic about this situation.  He states, “it would probably be too much to expect that we can do a great deal to the criminal groups without doing a considerable amount to the other elements in our society” (Tannenbaum, 1938: p. 474).  He calls for a change in our criminal justice system, politics and morals.  Society’s judicial and penal process is inundated with assumptions not merely that crime is individual, but that it is evidence of an evil nature.  Furthermore, the attempt to carryout public judgment has a very serious consequence.  The very processes of arrest, trial and conviction have a dramatic quality, which tends to distort the personality of the criminal in the direction of the drama.   Tannenbaum (1938) argues for modification of the procedure, including police officers and court agendum.  We should challenge the very method of definition of crime and judgment. Tannenbaum demands a rejection of the assumption that punishment of evil is a good outcome.  The need for an alternative to punishment is evident.  According to Tannenbaum, the way to confirm a criminal’s way of life is to throw him in with other criminals; where he learns new techniques, and becomes saturated in the criminal element.  For this reason Tannenbaum is opposed to simple incarceration for long periods.  His suggestion is frequent use of probation and parole alternatives (Tannenbaum, 1938).


*  Criticisms of Dramatization of Evil:

Contemporary labeling theorists refer to Frank Tannenbaum as the “Grandfather of Labeling Theory”, however, those who obviously built upon it rarely cite his work.  The works of Lemert, Becker, and Schur clearly had the influence of Tannenbaum, yet little acknowledgement is given (Sumner, 1994). Perhaps this is why there is almost no critical writings on his work, despite the numerous critiques of labeling theory in general. Extensive research yielded a critical writing on the theory of criminal behavior proposed by Tannenbaum.  This critical review of Tannenbaum, done by Travis Hirschi, was found in, “The Labeling of Deviance: Evaluating a Perspective” (Gove, 1980: p.271).  Thus, because of the lack of writings on Tannenbaum’s theory, a brief overview of how other theorists built upon Tannenbaum’s theory is also necessary.  One sees there is not an emergence of new theories due to criticism but a clarification of the old.

Travis Hirschi contends that labeling theory is not for the traditional student; because of its rejection of the validity of the research the traditional approach has produced (Gove, 1980).  When speaking of Tannenbaum specifically, Hirschi contends that Tannenbaum views the older theories, the ones of good versus evil, God versus the Devil, and Abnormal versus Normal, of having all shared the same fate.  They were proven false.  Furthermore, Hirschi states by “rejecting all assumptions that would impute crime to the individual in the sense that a personal shortcoming of the offender is the cause of the unsocial behavior” presents a problem for the empiricist.  If Tannenbaum can reject all future research then he certainly has no problem rejecting the research of the past.  Hirschi claims this as wrong; the differences between delinquents and non-delinquents are empirical.  It is one thing, argues Hirschi, to deny the differences, but something else to ignore them (Gove, 1980).

Tannenbaum’s theory, according to Hirschi, has all the characteristics of those theories now said to suffer from an “embarrassment of riches” (Gove, 1980, p. 276).  He failed to construct a criminal; instead, he has constructed a full-time criminal.  We would expect more crime from Tannenbaum’s criminal than we are now able to observe.  Important to Hirschi’s criticism is the construction of a criminal without the use of the labeling factor by Tannenbaum.  Several times in his argument, Tannenbaum creates a criminal without mentioning the dire effects of labeling.  In fact, states Hirschi, “when he does introduce labeling, it is almost as an afterthought” (Gove, 1980: p. 276).  The reactions of members of the community are only one of perhaps a score of conditions apparently necessary for the person to become a criminal.

According to Hirschi, Tannenbaum provides little to illustrate the effects of negative community attitudes.  In addition, Tannenbaum produces nothing to substantiate the dire effects of arrest.  Tannenbaum has many self-reported stories on how delinquents are transformed into hardened criminals by the “depraving atmosphere of the institutions”.  However, by reading these stories, contends Hirschi, one cannot conclude that they are evidence relevant to the question.  They provide no evidence that verifies Tannenbaum’s theory.  In addition, Hirschi believes that to establish the effects of arrests, prisons, or any other labeling experience, one must compare persons differentially exposed to the experience, and this is something that Tannenbaum does not do.

Hirschi concludes his critique on Tannenbaum’s theory by stating, “Tannenbaum’s version of labeling theory was not based on research” (Gove, 1980: p. 277).  In addition, Tannenbaum presents no evidence directly relevant to his thesis that attempts to control delinquency.  It seeks merely to intensify or amplify it.  Hirschi states that, “if we were to adopt the decision rule Tannenbaum employs when dealing with the theories of others-when in doubt, dismiss-there would be no question about our reaction to his: ‘It is a good story.  But there is no evidence that it is a true story” (Gove, 1980: p. 277).  Hirschi points to this as the cause for delinquency research ignoring Tannenbaum’s theory.

In order to show the influence of Tannenbaum’s theory directly, it becomes necessary to narrow the focus of Tannenbaum’s influence to two theorists: Edwin Lemert, and Howard Becker.  If this was not done and simply overviews of all labeling theorists were given, those that were not influenced by Tannenbaum would be included.  These two theorists restate Tannenbaum’s ideas, build upon them and clarify their nature.  Yet, as previously stated they rarely gave Tannenbaum the acknowledgement that he clearly deserved.

First presented by Tannenbaum, the notion that societal reaction to primary deviation leads to a more socially significant secondary deviation was systematically developed by Lemert (Melossi, 1985).  In 1951, Lemert wrote, Social Pathology, in this work Lemert, clearly building on Tannenbaum’s work, distinguished between the primary and secondary deviance (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 1991).  According to Lemert, primary deviation refers to “occasional or situational behavior that may be excused or rationalized by the actor and/or social audience”.  Secondary deviation, to the contrary, is the “result of a dynamic process between the individual’s deviation and societal response to the deviation” (Brown, Esbensen, & Geis, 1991, p. 386-387).  Lemert maintained that official reactions such as arrests, court hearings, and investigations usually exacerbate the situation and often cause redefinitions of the self.  Tannenbaum’s conclusion that the process of formal response to deviance is likely to cause further criminal activity, was held by Lemert (Brown, et al., 1991; Rubington & Weinberg, 1973).  It would appear that Lemert restated explicitly what Tannenbaum stated implicitly.  However, Lemert did attempt to have more of an empirical basis for his theory than did Tannenbaum.  Perhaps, this is why Lemert pays little attention to Tannenbaum’s theory and gives no credit to him for their similar views of deviance.

In the 1960’s, labeling theory emerged, once again, to a place of prominence.  This re-emergence of the theory can be contributed to the work of Howard Becker.  In his 1963 work, Outsiders:  Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Becker’s reflection of the ideas of Tannenbaum, turned labeling theory into what it is today (Brown, et al., 1991).  Becker expanded what Tannenbaum only touched upon in his writings.  According to Becker, social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes, and by applying those rules to particular people as and labeling them outsider.  Becker continues the assertion that deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits but the consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender.  According to Becker, the deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; “deviant behavior is behavior that people so label” (Brown, et al., 1991, p. 388).  Here Becker takes what Tannenbaum started and develops a dimension.  Becker established the social impact of the application of the label to the offender, once again something Tannenbaum did not state implicitly in his theory.  Becker does expand his theory and develop new ideas such as the falsely accused and secret deviants.  In addition, Becker introduces the “master status”, which suggests a deviant label becomes a master status with a number of assumed auxiliary statutes (Brown, et al., 1991).  It is possible that because of these new developments in the theory Becker gives no acknowledgement to the Tannenbaum roots of his theory.  In addition, like Lemert, Becker tried for a more empirical basis for his work.

Today, Labeling theory still battles with some of the criticisms that Hirschi leveled at Tannenbaum.  The lack of empirical support linking the response of the criminal justice system and the causes the secondary deviance is still a problem labeling theorist tackle (Schur, 1971; Gibbons, 1982; Kitsuse, 1962).  The propositions to be tested are not clearly specified so as to allow researchers to study the relationship between key variables.  Thus, very few direct tests have been made, and the vagueness of the labeling concept exacerbates the problem (Gibbons, 1982; Kitsuse, 1962).  In addition, critics of labeling theory claim that it distorts the real world by characterizing the deviance and social processes in an exaggerating and misleading way.  Additionally, according to opponents of labeling theory, it tends to ignore the socio-structural factors that contribute to delinquency (Schur, 1971; Giddens, 1984).  According to Gibbons (1982), like many other sociological theories, there is more than a slight bit of conceptual “flabbiness”, and ambiguity that is attached to the labeling theories.


*  Future of Dramatization of Evil/Labeling Theory:

          Frank Tannenbaum’s original theory, “Dramatization of Evil”, has certainly come a long way.  The efforts of those that came after Tannenbaum, provided for the modification and adaptation of the theory, from “dramatization of evil” to labeling/societal reaction theory.  However, what is the current importance of the theory?  What does the future hold for labeling theory? In “The Future of Labeling Theory” (1993), Charles Wellford and Ruth Triplett attempt to answer this question.  As we enter the twenty-first century were does labeling theory stand?  That is the question that this section attempts to answer. 

          According to Wellford and Triplett, labeling theory needs to “get back on track” (Adler and Laufer, 1993).  Labeling theory’s greatest boom was in the 1960’s, an emergence of new spins on the familiar topic were surfacing in academia, however, by the 1970s and early 1980s little development was made in the theory.  Nevertheless, critics continued to note its obvious shortcomings and other theories were gaining prominence.  In order for labeling theory to have a future, contend Wellford and Triplett, “research must be longitudinal; it should focus on the labeling process in the family, school and community as well as by more formal labelers; it should emphasize early labeling” (Adler and Laufer, 1993).  It is critical that future research on labeling understand the process as it applies to preschool and elementary school years as the child’s conception and understanding of self begins to take shape.  Furthermore, Wellford and Triplett argue that labeling theory needs to be integrated into not only other social and psychological theories, but also with theories that include biophysical characteristics and components representing cultural and sub-cultural aspect.  Finally, according to Wellford and Triplett, advances in labeling theory should provide more information on the process by which informal and/or formal labels actually affect delinquent or criminal behavior (Adler and Laufer, 1993, p.16).

          Labeling theory’s predecessors heeded the advice of Wellford and Triplett.  Currently, researchers in the field focus on discovering the processes behind the label, and provide stronger empirical basis for the theory.  According to Pfohl (1994), the labeling perspective exerts enormous influence over the field of deviance and social control today.  Partially, this influence is due to the integration of labeling theory with other theories in criminology, for example, in critical criminological theory and modern control theory, elements of labeling theory are present (Pfohl, 1994).

          Furthermore, a measure of a theory’s current usage is the number of citations found in indexes.  Searching the abstracts of the American Society of Criminology, The site listed three abstracts under labeling (1) or labeling theory (2).  All three abstracts were in the 1980’s (  The Institute for Scientific Information: The Web of Science was another site searched for reference to labeling theory, using the terms: “societal reaction”, “labeling theory”, and dramatization of evil”.  This searched yielded thirteen articles with reference to these terms (“societal reaction”(2), “labeling theory” (10), “dramatization of evil” (1)).    All thirteen of these articles were in the 1990’s.  Specifically, between 1997-2000 the ten articles found under “labeling theory” were written (  

In addition, the current usage of diversion programs in the criminal justice system attests to influence of labeling theory.  One of the central tenets of the theory is to encourage the end of labeling process, in the words of Frank Tannenbaum, “the way out is through a refusal to dramatize the evil”, the justice system attempts to do this through diversion programs.  The growth of the theory and its current application, both practical and theoretical, provide a solid foundation for continued popularity.


*      Bibliography:


Adler, F., & Laufer W. S.  (Eds.).  (1993).  New Directions in Criminological Theory.  New Brunswick:  Transaction Publishers.


Brown, S. E., Esbensen, F., & Geis G. (1991).  Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context.  Cincinnati:  Anderson Publishing.


Cullen, F. T., & Cullen J. B.  (1978).  Toward a Paradigm of Labeling Theory.  Lincoln:  University at Lincoln. 


Gibbons, D. C. (1982).  Society, Crime and Criminal Behavior (4th ed.).  Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice-Hall.


Giddens, A.  (1984).  The Constitution of Society.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


Gove, W. R. (Ed.).  (1980).  The Labeling of Deviance:  Evaluating a Perspective (2nd ed.).  Beverly Hills:  Sage Publications.


Kitsuse, J. I. (1962).  Societal reaction to Deviant Behavior: Problems of Theory and Method.  Social Problems, 9,  247-256


Melossi, D.  (1985).  Overcoming the Crisis in Critical Criminology:  Toward A Grounded Labeling Theory.  Criminology, 23(2), 193-208.


Pfohl, S. (1994).  Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History (2nd ed.).  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 


Rubington, E., & Weinberg, M. S. (1973).  Deviance: The Interactionist Perspective.  New York:  Macmillan Company.


Schur, E. M.  (1971).  Labeling Deviant Behavior: Its Sociological Implications.  New York:  Harper & Row.


Shoham, S.  (1970).  The Mark of Cain: The Stigma Theory of Crime and Social Deviance.  Dobbs Ferry:  Oceana Publications.


Sumner, C.  (1994).  The Sociology of Deviance:  An Obituary.  New York: Continuum Publishing.


Tannenbaum, F.  (1938).  Crime and the Community.  New York and London:  Columbia University Press.


Thornberry, T. P. (Ed.).  (1997).  Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency.  New Brunswick:  Transaction Publishers.