Defiance Theory Research Paper

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In 1993, Lawrence W. Sherman proposed defiance theory, which laid out the factors leading to defiant or deterrent reactions to punishment. His original theory may be interpreted as a counter to deterrence/retribution approaches to achieving compliance with the law in that it proposed that while deterrent effects may result from sanctions, a combination of factors may also produce defiant effects for that same sanction. Criminological theory and criminal justice policy have long focused on the relationship between sanctions and criminal behavior. Deterrence and labeling, in particular, are two major theoretical traditions that emphasize sanctions as a key explanatory factor, providing contradictory predictions about the impact of those sanctions on behavior. Deterrence theorists predict that sanctions, especially those which are swift, certain, and proportionally severe, will deter or reduce further criminal behavior. Additionally, criminal justice policy is often predicated on the assumption that sanctions deter offenders. Labeling theory, on the other hand, predicts that sanctions will stigmatize the offender, producing increased offending (i.e., secondary deviance) in the future.

Defiance Theory (1993)

A large body of research examining the deterrence and labeling theoretical perspectives has produced inconclusive results. Research suggests that, in varying instances, sanctions may either deter or increase future offending. Recognizing this diversity in the effect of sanctions, Lawrence W. Sherman (1993) argued that the pattern of sanction effects observed in existing research exhibits two themes. First, the impact of sanctions appears to depend on perceptions of fairness, in that sanctions viewed as unfair are more likely to increase offending. Second, sanctions appear to increase crime among out-groups while deterring crime among in-groups. Suggesting that existing theory is incapable of accounting for these patterns, Sherman proposed defiance theory to explain the conditions under which sanctions will increase criminal activity versus deterring offending.

The starting point in Sherman’s original defiance theory is the concept of defiance, which he defined as “the net increase in the prevalence, incidence, or seriousness of future offending against a sanctioning community caused by a proud, shameless reaction to the administration of a criminal sanction” (p.459). Defiance may take several forms. Similar to deterrence, defiance may be either specific (i.e., the reaction of an individual to his or her own punishment) or general (i.e., the reaction of a group to the punishment of a group member). Additionally, individuals may exhibit either direct defiance, reacting against the sanctioning agent, or indirect defiance, reacting against another individual who vicariously represents the sanctioning agent. Sherman provides examples of the different types of defiance. For example, an individual who assaults a police officer during an arrest is exhibiting specific, direct defiance. An individual who assaults his or her spouse following a domestic violence arrest is exhibiting specific, indirect defiance. General, direct defiance is illustrated by the South African ambush killings of police officers, who were viewed as the tools of oppression during the apartheid era, a perception that has lingered. The 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the four police officers who beat Rodney King during a traffic stop provide an example of general, indirect defiance.

Conditions For Defiance

Sherman argues that defiance is likely to occur when the sanctioned individual views his or her punishment as unfair or illegitimate, is poorly bonded, and denies the shame of the punishment. In contrast, sanctions are expected to produce deterrence when the sanctioned individual is well bonded, views the sanction as legitimate, and accepts the shame he or she feels. In this case, the individual remains proud of his or her connection to the community, recognizes the harm that his or her actions have caused, and attempts to repair that bond. Sanctions are irrelevant to future offending when these factors are evenly balanced. For example, when a well-bonded offender denies the shame associated with the unfair sanction, the expected outcome will likely be irrelevance, not deterrence. In this instance, the perceived unfairness of the sanction and the failure to accept the shame that accompanies the sanction will nullify any deterrent effect produced by the strong social bond. With this discussion, Sherman is able to theoretically account for the mixed effects of sanctions apparent in the research literature.

Defiance theory focuses on explaining the defiant reaction to a sanction. Specifically, there are four necessary conditions for defiance to occur: (1) the sanction must be defined by the offender as unfair, (2) the offender must be poorly bonded to society, (3) the sanction must be viewed by the offender as stigmatizing, and (4) the offender must refuse to acknowledge the shame produced by the sanction. In proposing his theory and identifying these four conditions, Sherman has borrowed from John Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming, Tom Tyler’s concept of procedural justice, and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger’s discussion of the role of shame and rage in destructive conflicts.

Perceptions Of Fairness

According to Sherman, one key theme in understanding whether a sanction produces defiance or deterrence is the perceived fairness or legitimacy of the sanction or sanctioning agent. Unfairness may be related to disrespect by the sanctioning agent or a perception that the punishment is arbitrary, discriminatory, or otherwise unjust. Whether the unfairness of a punishment is substantive or perceptual, unfair or unjust sanctions may not have their intended deterrent effect. According to Tyler’s procedural justice perspective, sanctions that are perceived as unfair reduce the legitimacy of law enforcement or the criminal justice system, which reduces the likelihood of compliance. If an individual perceives a punishment as unjust, he or she may begin to question the law itself and feel justified in disregarding it. Scheff and Retzinger contend that societal disapproval, when expressed disrespectfully or to a person with weak social bonds, may evoke anger. Reintegrative shaming theory likewise argues that sanctions that stigmatize and label the offender may weaken existing social bonds and produce increased offending. Thus, perceptions of the fairness of a sanction and the experience of being stigmatized by a sanction may interact with an individual’s social bonds to produce defiant effects.

Social Bonding

Procedural justice argues that when the legitimacy of formal sanctions breaks down, social sanctions are expected to take their place. Thus, social bonding also plays a large role in defiance theory. In particular, Sherman relies on some elements of reintegrative shaming theory to explain the connection between unfair or stigmatizing sanctions and social bonds. For Braithwaite, individuals who have strong social bonds (i.e., interdependency) may be more likely to experience reintegrative sanctions, which are rejecting of the act but avoid applying a label to the individual. Thus, reintegrative sanctions are likely to be viewed as fair and to produce deterrence. Disintegrative sanctions, however, are rejecting of both the act and actor, stigmatizing the sanctioned individual. These sanctions are more likely to be viewed as unfair and disrespectful. Sherman likewise recognizes the potential criminogenic effect of stigmatizing sanctions, especially among individuals with weak social bonds. He argues that individuals with strong social bonds will not react defiantly to a punishment perceived as unfair so as not to jeopardize those bonds. On the other hand, individuals with weak social bonds are more likely to deny the shame of being sanctioned and respond with indignation and anger. This angry, prideful reaction sets the stage for defiance and increased offending.

Experiencing Shame

An individual’s reaction to the shame of a sanction is the final link in the explanation of defiance. Sherman highlights the role of shame, pointing both to reintegrative shaming theory and to Scheff and Retzinger’s work on the master emotions of shame and pride. Both Braithwaite and Scheff and Retzinger argue that individual reactions to the shame of a sanction will vary depending on an individual’s level of social bonding. Similarly, labeling theory suggests that secondary deviance (i.e., defiant effects for Sherman) occurs as a reaction to the experience of being sanctioned, in that individuals may perceive their punishment as an attack and may act defiantly as a defense to society’s disapproval.

Scheff and Retzinger criticize early versions of labeling theory for failing to take emotions, especially shame, into account. For these authors, societal disapproval is described as a threat to the sanctioned individual’s social bonds. If the individual accepts the shame that he or she feels and recognizes the harm he or she has caused, the individual may seek to avoid that behavior in the future (i.e., deterrence). Braithwaite’s theory of reintegrative shaming presents a similar argument. On the other hand, if the person refuses to acknowledge or rejects that shame, he or she may respond with self-righteous anger. Scheff and Retzinger describe a shame/rage spiral, in which rage is a protective measure against shame, a way of rejecting the shame, and a defense against a perceived attack. Thus, this shame/rage spiral occurs when a person’s bond is threatened, the shame is not acknowledged, and behavior is interpreted as an attack. This produces violence, hatred, and resentment which may lead to defiance. For Sherman, shame, or the refusal to acknowledge shame, is the primary causal mechanism in explaining defiant effects.

Empirical Evidence For Defiance Theory

Sherman concludes his theoretical formulation by noting that “until recently, the science of sanction effects has been short on facts and even shorter on theory. Now, it seems, the available theory has gotten ahead of the facts” (p. 468). Despite the promise of defiance theory in explaining variation in sanction effects, there have been no complete tests of the theory since its development. Most of the evidence that can be marshaled in support of the theory is derived from studies not originally designed to examine its propositions. Some research supports the notion that perceptions of unfairness, either to the law being imposed or to the sanction itself, are likely to lead to more criminal offending (i.e., defiant effects). Sherman highlights research suggesting that previously sanctioned individuals are less likely to be deterred. It may be that, because few people are formally sanctioned for offending, those who do receive a punishment perceive their treatment as comparatively unfair and respond defiantly by engaging in further delinquency.

Additional research examining police-citizen encounters indirectly tests some of the propositions articulated by defiance theory. These studies primarily focus on the offender’s (or citizen’s) perceptions of fair treatment by police officers in their encounters. Raymond Paternoster, Robert Brame, Ronet Bachman, and Lawrence Sherman (1997) examined the effect of arrest on the likelihood of engaging in subsequent domestic assaults and found that the offender’s perceptions of fair treatment by police were important determinants of future offending. Other studies of police-citizen interactions support the premise that individuals who feel that they are unfairly treated by police are more likely to be resistant. In other words, the perceived legitimacy of a police officer’s action is an important predictor of citizen compliance or resistance. When the police are perceived to be respectful to citizens, compliance is more likely. Confrontational and physical actions on the part of police, on the other hand, are more likely to produce resistance, possibly because the actions are interpreted as unfair and stigmatizing. This body of research supports Sherman’s argument that defiant effects are more likely to occur when sanctions are perceived as unfair. While these results are suggestive, they do not address the key to defiance theory, which is an individual’s perception of the sanction.

A more recent study examined the perceptual nature of defiance theory and the impact of those perceptions on future offending more closely and has provided the most complete test of the theory to date. Leana Bouffard and Nicole Leeper Piquero (2010) found that individuals who perceived a sanction as unfair and were poorly bonded had higher rates of future offending. While much existing research demonstrates that perceptions of unfairness and social bonding have a strong connection to offending, the role of shame in producing defiance remained unclear in this study. Other research, however, has supported the role of shame in offending.

In 2006, David Brownfield examined the propositions of defiance theory as they relate to gang membership and found that all elements of defiance theory were linked to gang membership. More specifically, perceptions of legitimacy and pride were important. Gang members reported being happy about the possibility of being arrested. A study of recidivist drunk driving in Australia likewise found evidence that shame experienced as a result of the sanction may produce a sense of self-righteous anger, which leads individuals to question the legitimacy of the sanctioning agent (Freeman et al. 2006). These studies have also noted the importance of delinquent peers, who might provide justification for defiance and a social reaction that enhances the likelihood of a prideful response. Unfortunately, the existing research generally provides only piecemeal support for defiance theory. Studies specifically designed to link the theory’s propositions together are necessary.

Recent Developments In Defiance Theory

While empirical evidence provides some support for the propositions of defiance theory (Sherman 1993), the explanation is limited in its position as an explanation of law-breaking, especially in response to sanctions. In 2010, Sherman expanded the original conceptualization of defiance to position it as the independent variable in a broad, general theory of criminology that encompasses “lawmaking, law-breaking, and responses to law-breaking” (Sherman 2010, p. 360). Sherman comments that Sutherland’s original definition of criminology included all three of these elements. No theory has yet been proposed, however, to unify all three in one causal framework. Thus, this reconceptualization is an ambitious project designed to provide a more comprehensive theoretical perspective that applies to all three components of criminology.

This reconceptualization may be viewed as an elaboration of the 1993 version of defiance theory, broadening and extending the original through the process of consilience, in which predictions from one domain of criminology (i.e., law-breaking) are applied to other domains (i.e., lawmaking and responses to lawbreaking). As Sherman contends, observations from all three domains point to the same causal force, the sense of moral obligation to resist the status quo, what Sherman refers to as defiance.

The major elaborations of the original theory include broadening the definition of defiance as the moral sense of “obligation or justification to defy the status quo” (p. 364). Sherman recognizes a continuous contest between defiant and deterrent actors that encompasses both lawful and unlawful efforts to create or change law, the use of power by agents of law, and confrontations between lawbreakers and law-enforcers (e.g., police-citizen interactions). Because the general defiance theory incorporates all elements of criminology and reciprocal causation, this is the major restatement that allows the more general theory to cover all domains within criminology.

Sherman’s formal restatement proposes that “criminal laws are more likely to be made, broken, obeyed and enforced when people intuitively feel that their actions are morally founded” (p. 366). He defines defiant effects in a similar framework as deterrent effects, in that a general reduction in crime is assumed to be a deterrent effect without evidence that the deterrence process (i.e., the sanction imparts a fear of future sanctions) is operating. Likewise, a defiant effect would be defined as “active resistance to a countervailing force” (p. 369) or resistance to the status quo. These are a broad class of observable behaviors reflecting decisions to make law or policy, break laws, enforce laws, or a choice not to enforce laws. Defiance then is an “individual or collective sense of moral obligation, including indignation and empathy” (p. 369). Individuals selectively perceive harm caused to themselves or others, and those perceptions of harm may produce moral intuitions of indignation, empathy, or both. These facilitate a definition of the status quo as illegitimate and produce an obligation to defy that status quo.

Sherman provides a number of specific predictions or hypotheses based on his general defiance theory that encompass the three domains of criminology:

  1. Conduct will be criminalized to the extent that opponents of the conduct promote a feeling of moral obligation to oppose that conduct as illegitimate.
  2. Laws will be enforced to the extent that enforcement agencies collectively and individually accept the legitimacy of the moral obligation to do so.
  3. Laws will be broken to the extent that potential offenders feel a moral obligation to defy agents making and enforcing laws as illegitimate.
  4. Morally infused campaigns of law-breaking can lead to changes in law, to the extent that the violations promote a feeling of moral obligation to allow them.
  5. Law-makers and enforcers will also break laws, or re-make them, to the extent that they feel moral indignation, empathy, or a moral obligation to do so.
  6. Changes in moral indignation or empathy can be fostered by events causing an epiphany revealing the harm caused by some conduct, law or punishment. (Sherman 2010, p. 375)

Types Of Defiance

As in the original defiance theory, Sherman (2010) distinguishes a number of potential defiant effects. He retains a sense of specific as opposed to general defiance that refers to the individual or collective response to an encounter with the status quo, either its content or the violation or enforcement of law (see p. 370). In the original version of defiance theory, Sherman defined direct and indirect defiance. Here, he retains the initial meaning but renames these forms as direct and displaced defiance, referring to behavior aimed either at those who have committed a moral wrong (i.e., direct) or at those not directly known to have committed the harm but belonging to and representing the same group (i.e., displaced).

A distinction between concealed and identifiable defiance refers to efforts by the actor to hide their actions and is related to how much they are willing to sacrifice with their defiance. For example, those individuals who flee the scene of the crime to avoid capture are engaging in concealed defiance. Those who openly identify themselves and seek attention for their actions engage in identifiable defiance. For identifiable defiance, Sherman gives the example of suicide bombers who create videoor audiotape recordings prior to committing the act. Defiance may also be categorized as active (i.e., requiring action) or passive (i.e., requiring the withholding of action). In terms of law-breaking or offending, commission of most crimes would be considered active; however, failure to wear seat belts or helmets would be examples of passive defiance. For example, despite helmet laws, some motorcyclists may choose not to wear helmets as a defiant withholding of action related to perceptions that the government has overstepped their authority in regulating behavior. In terms of law-enforcing, Sherman describes the use of police discretion (e.g., under-enforcement or choosing not to arrest in certain situations) as passive defiance. On the other hand, excessive use of force by police may be defined as active defiant law-enforcing. Finally, Sherman distinguishes resistant and dismissive defiance based on perceptions about the moral authority of the wrongdoing agent or agency. Resistant defiance recognizes the moral authority of the agent but advocates for change, while dismissive defiance rejects the agent altogether, disabling or eliminating the authority.

Defiance And Other Theoretical

Perspectives In his 2010 restatement, Sherman retains a focus on the legitimacy of sanctioning agents or other agents of authority. In contrast to the earlier version, which viewed the acknowledgement of shame as the key predictor of defiance, the 2010 version seems to place legitimacy as the main element in understanding defiant effects. Thus, Tyler’s work on procedural justice and other research exploring issues of fairness retains a place of importance within the General Defiance Theory. Sherman also positions General Defiance Theory as a complement to subcultural and conflict theories in that it recognizes both competing systems of morality within society and the use of the power and material resources of authorities to shape moral obligation through such forces as moral panics. Additionally, the theory borrows from techniques of neutralization in recognizing the justifications offered for defiance or resistance to the moral force.

Future Directions

Researchers have highlighted the links between Sherman’s (1993) original defiance theory and other explanatory mechanisms. For example, within psychology, the personality construct of grandiosity (i.e., exaggerated perceptions of self-worth) may inform the path to defiance, in that grandiose or self-centered individuals may be more likely to reject the sanctioning agent and the shame associated with being sanctioned, resulting in a defiant response. In criminology, research also suggests that individuals with low levels of self-control are more likely to perceive sanctions as unfair and to respond with anger (Piquero et al. 2004). Though not specifically addressed by Sherman or necessarily intended, one advantage of defiance theory is that in linking concepts, like emotion and social bonding, it offers an integrative perspective that accounts for either defiance or deterrence.

From the life-course and criminal career perspective, defiance may also be seen as an explanation of continuity in and desistance from offending. The theory provides an explanation for continuity, which is the defiant response of a poorly bonded offender who defines his or her sanction as unfair and stigmatizing and refuses to acknowledge the shame he or she feels. These individuals may continue or escalate their offending, becoming involved in secondary deviance (i.e., persistence). The original theory can also explain desistance by arguing that if an individual defines a sanction as unfair and stigmatizing but has strong social bonds, that person may accept the shame that he or she feels or be unwilling to jeopardize his or her bonds through a defiant reaction. According to Sherman, these individuals will be deterred from future offending (i.e., they will desist). In the 2010 restatement, Sherman extends this argument by suggesting that desistance may be thought of as an individual defying their own prior behavior. In other words, those who have previously engaged in law-breaking may eventually recognize the harm that they have caused to themselves and others, producing a moral obligation to resist their own previous behavior (i.e., a turning point in the language of the life-course perspective). Thus, exploring defiance theory from a longitudinal, life-course framework is another promising avenue for research.

James Unnever and Shaun Gabiddon (2011) also highlight the role of defiance in providing an understanding of the overrepresentation of African-Americans, especially men, in the criminal justice system. In their Theory of African-American Offending, these authors highlight perceptions of the legitimacy of criminal justice agencies as a key explanatory factor. Due to a history of racial injustices at the hands of the criminal justice system, African-Americans view law enforcement and other criminal justice actors and agencies as having little legitimacy, perceiving that the law and the criminal justice system are racist, disrespectful, and unfair to African-Americans. Greater levels of experienced and/or vicarious racial injustice interfere with bonding to predominantly white social institutions like school and work. Thus, offending by African-Americans is viewed as a defiant response to racial injustice. Sherman (2010) likewise points to the history of race and law in the United States as an illustration of various aspects of his General Defiance Theory. For example, in terms of lawmaking, Sherman argues that his theory is capable of accounting for both the justification/rise and the demise of slavery within the USA by positioning these decisions within a consideration of the shifting public sentiments from the moral justification of slavery to a moral obligation to oppose the enslavements of human beings. Both of these perspectives suggest the relevance of the concept of defiance and of General Defiance Theory in exploring the relationship between race and crime, criminal law, and the criminal justice system.


It is difficult to truly assess the value of Sherman’s original defiance theory with the paucity of studies that directly test its propositions. Rather, the existing research provides suggestive evidence supporting some elements of the theory, particularly perceptions of fairness and social bonding. Additionally, the 2010 reconceptualization into a General Defiance Theory of criminology adds layers of complexity that make testing its propositions more difficult. As a new theory, no researchers have yet attempted to assess the propositions set forth in Sherman’s (2010) restatement. What remains is to explicitly design studies that link the elements of defiance together as proposed by the theory and to explore the connections between this and other theories at both the specific level of the original version (i.e., in predicting law-breaking) and at the more general level of the restatement (i.e., in also predicting lawmaking and law-enforcing). At this point, the theory is relevant to understanding the importance of the interplay between perceptions of fairness and legitimacy, social bonding, and the experience of shame, but future research is necessary to fully explore these relationships and to assess how well the concepts of defiance, moral obligation, etc., extend to all domains within criminology.


  1. Bouffard LA, Piquero NL (2010) Defiance theory and life course explanations of persistent offending. Crime Delinq 56:227–252
  2. Braithwaite J (1989) Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  3. Brownfield D (2006) A defiance theory of sanctions and gang membership. J Gang Res 13:31–43
  4. Freeman J, Liossis P, David N (2006) Deterrence, defiance and deviance: an investigation into a group of recidivist drunk drivers’ self-reported offending behaviours. Aust N Z J Criminol 39:1–19
  5. Paternoster R, Brame R, Bachman R, Sherman LW (1997) Do fair procedures matter? The effects of procedural justice on spouse assault. Law Soc Rev 31:163–204
  6. Piquero AR, Gomez-Smith Z, Langton L (2004) Discerning unfairness where others may not: low self-control and unfair sanction perceptions. Criminology 42:699–734
  7. Scheff TJ, Retzinger SM (1991) Emotions and violence: shame and rage in destructive conflicts. Lexington Books, Lexington
  8. Sherman LW (1993) Defiance, deterrence, and irrelevance: a theory of the criminal sanction. J Res Crime Delinq 30:445–473
  9. Sherman LW (2010) Defiance, compliance, and consilience: a general theory of criminology. In: McLaughlin E, Newburn T (eds) The Sage handbook of criminological theory. Sage, Thousand Oaks.
  10. Tyler TR (1990) Why people obey the law. Yale University Press, New Haven
  11. Unnever JD, Gabbidon SL (2011) A theory of African-American offending: race, racism, and crime. Routledge, New York

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