Sociology Index

Frank Tannenbaum

In dramatization of evil, Frank Tannenbaum, among distinguished sociologists, explains how a criminal is made and what causes criminal behavior. His conception led to the development of the symbolic interactionism and labeling theory used in social psychology. In 1922, Tannenbaum published Wall Shadows: A Study in American Prisons. (Tannenbaum, 1922) on his experiences with the American penal system. In 1944, Frank Tannenbaum was instrumental in proposing the Columbia University Seminars format; a group of Columbia faculty, other faculty, and students who gathered together in discussion of issues on compelling topics such as peace and war.

Summarizing his theory's impact, Kerry Townsend has stated, "Frank Tannenbaum’s theory, dramatization of evil, explains the making of a criminal and the lure of criminal behavior." "Individual levels of interaction, began to emerge spearheaded by the writings of George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley," which formed the basis of Societal Reaction theories of which Frank Tannenbaum's form part. His conception of the "Dramatization Of Evil" led to the further development of the symbolic interactionist labeling theory, widely used in both sociology and social psychology.

Frank Tannenbaum served as the official reporter to the Wickersham Commission’s study on Penal Institutions, Probation and Parole (Volume 9) in 1931. Two years later, he published a biography on prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne, a former warden of Sing Sing prison. This article discusses the career of Frank Tannenbaum as an early American convict criminologist. In 1914, he served a year on Blackwell’s Island (New York City) for labor disturbances involving a group of 200 unemployed and hungry men on the lower west side of Manhattan.

Frank Tannenbaum: The Making of a Convict Criminologist - Matthew G. Yeager
King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada
Abstract: Frank Tannenbaum is best known in criminology for his depiction of the dramatization of evil, an early precursor of labeling theory which caught on in the 1960s. Less well known is the fact that Tannenbaum was a convict criminologist.