The Labelling Theory of Crime

The labelling Theory of Crime is associated with Interactionism – the Key ideas are that crime is socially constructed, agents of social control label the powerless as deviant and criminal based on stereotypical assumptions and this creates effects such as the self-fulfilling prophecy, the criminal career and deviancy amplification.

Interactionists argue that people do not become criminals because of their social background, but rather argue that crime emerges because of labelling by authorities. They see crime as the product of micro-level interactions between certain individuals and the police, rather than the result of external social forces such as socialisation or blocked opportunity structures.

Four Key concepts associated with Interactionist theories of deviance

  1. Crime is Sociology Constructed – An act which harms an individual or society else only becomes criminal if those in power label that act as criminal.

  1. Not everyone who is deviant gets labelled as such – negative labels are generally (deviant/ criminal) are generally given to the powerless by the powerful.

  1. Labelling has real consequences – it can lead to deviancy amplification, the self-fulfilling prophecy and deviant careers.

  1. Labelling theory has a clear ‘value position’ – it should aim to promote policies that prevent labelling minor acts as deviant.

1- Crime is Socially Constructed

Rather than taking the definition of crime for granted, labelling theorists are interested in how certain acts come to be defined or labelled as criminal in the first place.

Interactionists argue that there is no such thing as an inherently deviant act – in other words there is nothing which is deviant in itself in all situations and at all times, certain acts only become deviant in certain situations when others label them as deviant. Deviance is not a result of an act or an individual being ‘uniquely different’, deviance is a product of society’s reaction to actions.

howard becker

Howard Becker

As Howard Becker* (1963) puts it – “Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequences of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.” (*The main theorist within labelling theory)

Howard Becker illustrates how crime is the product of social interactions by using the example of a fight between young people. In a low-income neighbourhood, a fight is more likely to be defined by the police as evidence of delinquency, but in a wealthy area as evidence of high spirits. The acts are the same, but the meanings given to them by the audience (in this case the public and the police) differ. Those who have the power to make the label stick thus create deviants or criminals.

Becker provides a more extreme example in his book The Outsiders (1963) – in this he draws on a simple illustration of an anthropological study by anthropologist Malinowski who describes how a youth killed himself because he hand been publicly accused of incest. When Malinowski had first inquired about the case, the islanders expressed their horror and disgust. But, on further investigation, it turned out that incest was not uncommon on the island, nor was it really frowned upon provided those involved were discrete. However, if an incestuous affair became too obvious and public, the islanders reacted with abuse and the offenders were ostracised and often driven to suicide.

To be clear – in the above example, everyone knows that incest goes on, but if people are too public about it (and possibly if they are just disliked for whatever reason) they get publicly shamed for being in an incestuous relationship.

You could apply the same thinking to criminal behaviour more generally in Britain – According to a recent 2015 survey of 2000 people, the average person in Britain breaks the law 17 ties per year, with 63% admitting speeding, 33% steeling and 25% taking illegal drugs – clearly the general public is tolerant of ‘ordinary’ deviance – but every now and then someone will get spotted doing ‘ordinary’ criminal activities and publicly shamed.

drug use UK

Only an extreme minority of these drug users will be publicly labelled as deviant

All of this has led labelling theorists to look at how and why rules and laws get made – especially the role of what Becker calls ‘moral entrepreneurs’, people who lead a moral crusade to change the law in the belief that it will benefit those to whom it is applied. However, according to Interactionists, when new laws are created, they simply create new groups of outsiders and lead to the expansion of social control agencies such as the police, and such campaigns may do little to change the underlying amount of ‘deviant activity’ taking place.

In summary – deviance is not a quality that lies in behaviour itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those who respond to it. From this point of view, deviance is produced by a process of interaction between the potential deviant and the wider public (both ordinary people and agencies of social control).

Application of the concept of ‘social constructionism’ to drug crime

Looking at how drug laws have changed over time, and how they vary from country to country to country is a very good way of looking at how the deviant act of drug-taking is socially constructed…

In the United Kingdom, a new law was recently passed which outlawed all legal highs, meaning that many ‘head-shops’ which sold them literally went from doing something legal to illegal over night (obviously they had plenty of notice!)

(The last days of legal highs – on iPlayer)

Meanwhile – in some states in America, such as Colorado, things seem to be moving in the other direction – it is now legal to grow, sell and smoke Weed – meaning that a whole new generation of weed entrepreneurs have suddenly gone from doing something illegal to something legal, and profitable too!

NB – There’s a lot more information about the social construction of drug use out there – think about the difference between coffee, nicotine, alcohol (all legal) and cannabis. 

Discussion Question

Do you agree with the idea that there is no such thing as an inherently deviance act? Work your way through the list of deviance acts below and try to think of contexts in which they would not be regarded as deviant.

– Violence

– Theft

– Fraud

– Drug taking

– Public nudity

– Paedophilia

– Vandalism

2 – Not Everyone Who is Deviant Gets Labelled

Those in Power are just as deviant/ criminal as actual ‘criminals’ but they are more able to negotiate themselves out of being labelled as criminals.

NB to my mind the classic song by NWA ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is basically highlighting the fact that it’s young black males in the US that typically get labelled as criminals (while young white kids generally don’t)

Back to Labelling theory proper – the key idea here is that not everyone who commits an offence is punished for it. Whether a person is arrested, charged and convicted depends on factors such as:

  1. Their interactions with agencies of social control such as the police and the courts
  2. Their appearance, background and personal biography
  3. The situation and circumstances of the offence.

This leads labelling theorists to look at how laws are applied and enforced. Their studies show that agencies of social control are more likely to label certain groups of people as deviant or criminal.

The main piece of sociological research relevant here is Aaron Cicourel’s ‘Power and The Negotiation of Justice’ (1968)

Aaron Cicourel – Power and the negotiation of justice

The process of defining a young person as a delinquent is complex, and it involves a series of interactions based on sets of meanings held by the participants. Cicourel argues that it is the meanings held by police officers and juvenile officers that explain why most delinquents come from working class backgrounds.

The first stage is the decision by the police to stop and interrogate an individual. This decision is based on meanings held by the police of what is ‘strange’, ‘unusual’ and ‘wrong’. Whether or not the police stop and interrogate an individual depends on where the behaviour is taking place and on how the police perceive the individual(s). Whether behaviour is deemed to be ‘suspicious’ will depend on where the behaviour is taking place, for example an inner city, a park, a suburb. If a young person has a demeanour like that of a ‘typical delinquent’ then the police are more likely to both interrogate and arrest that person.

The Second Stage is that the young person is handed over to a juvenile delinquent officer. This officer will have a picture of a ‘typical delinquent’ in his mind. Factors associated with a typical delinquent include being of dishevelled appearance, having poor posture, speaking in slang etc. It follows that Cicourel found that most delinquents come from working class backgrounds.

When middle class delinquents are arrested they are less likely to be charged with the offence as they do not fit the picture of a ‘typical delinquent’. Also, their parents are more able to present themselves as respectable and reasonable people from a nice neighbourhood and co-operate fully with the juvenile officers, assuring them that their child is truly remorseful.

As a result, the middle class delinquent is more likely to be defined as ill rather than criminal, as having accidentally strayed from the path of righteousness just the once and having a real chance of reforming.

Cicourel based his research on two Californian cities, each with a population of about 100, 000. both had similar social characteristics yet there was a significant difference in the amount of delinquents in each city. Cicourel argued that this difference can only be accounted for by the size, organisation, policies and practices of the juvenile and police bureaus. It is the societal reaction that affects the rate of delinquency. It is the agencies of social control that produce delinquents.

Discussion Questions

Q1 – Do you agree that the whole criminal justice system is basically biased against the working classes, and towards to middle classes?

Q2 – From a research methods point of view, what research methods could you use to test this theory?

3 – The Consequences of Labelling

Labelling theorists are interested in the effects of labelling on those labelled. They claim that, by labelling certain people as criminal or deviant, society actually encourages them to become more so.

In this section I cover:

  • Primary and Secondary Deviance (Edwin Lemert)
  • The Deviant Career, the Master Status and Subcultures (Howard Becker)
  • Labelling and the Self-Fulling Prophecy applied to education (Howard Becker and Rosenthal and Jacobson)
  • Labelling theory applied to the Media – Moral Panics, Folk Devils and Deviancy Amplification (Stan Cohen)

If the material below seems a little samely – that’s because it’s all subtle variations on the same theme!

Primary and Secondary Deviance

Edwin Lemert (1972) developed the concepts of primary and secondary deviance to emphasise the fact that everyone engages in deviant acts, but only some people are caught being deviant and labelled as deviant.

Primary deviance refers to acts which have not been publicly labelled, and are thus of little consequence, while secondary deviance refers to deviance which is the consequence of the response of others, which is significant.

To illustrate this, Lemert studied the the coastal Inuit of Canada, who had a long-rooted problem of chronic stuttering or stammering. Lemert suggested that the problem was ’caused’ by the great importance attached to ceremonial speech-making. Failure to speak well was a great humiliation. Children with the slightest speech difficulty were so conscious of their parents’ desire to have well-speaking children that they became over anxious about their own abilities. It was this anxiety which lead to chronic stuttering.

Lemert compared the coastal Inuit which emphasised the importance of public speaking to other similar cultures in the area which did not attach status to public-speaking, and found that in such culture, stuttering was largely non-existence, thus Lemert concluded that it was the social pressure to speak well (societal reaction) which led to some people developing problems with stuttering

In this example, chronic stuttering (secondary deviance) is a response to parents’ reaction to initial minor speech defects (primary deviance).

Labelling, The Deviant Career and the Master Status

This is Howard Becker’s classic statement of how labelling theory can be applied across the whole criminal justice system to demonstrated how criminals emerge, possibly over the course of many years. Basically the public, the police and the courts selectively label the already marginalised as deviant, which the then labelled deviant responds to by being more deviant.

Howard Becker argued that the deviant label can become a ‘master status’ in which the individual’s deviant identity overrules all other identities. Becker argues that there are 5 stages in this process:

  1. The Individual is publicly labelled as a deviant, which may lead to rejection from several social groups. For example, if someone is labelled a junkie they may be rejected by their family.

  1. This may encourage further deviance. For example, drug addicts may turn to crime to finance their habit.

  1. The official treatment of deviance may have similar effects. EG convicted criminals find it difficult to find jobs.

  1. A deviant career may emerge. The deviant career is completed when individuals join an organised deviant group. This is the stage when an individual confirms and accepts their deviant identity.

  1. This is the stage at which the label may become a master status, overriding all other forms of relationship outside the deviant group.

Labelling Theory Applied to Education

Labelling theory has been applied to the context of the school to explain differences in educational achievement (this should sound familiar from year 1!)

Within Schools, Howard Becker (1970) argued that middle class teachers have an idea of an ‘ideal pupil’ that is middle class. This pupil speaks in elaborated speech code, is polite, and smartly dressed, He argued that middle class teachers are likely view middle class pupils more positively than working class pupils irrespective of their intelligence. Thus teachers positively label the students most like them.

There is also evidence of a similar process happening with African Caribbean children. Sociologists such as David Gilborn argue that teachers hold negative stereotypes of young black boys, believing them to be more threatening and aggressive than White and Asian children. They are thus more likely to interpret minor rule breaking by black children in a more serious manner than when White and Asian children break minor rules.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) argued that positive teacher labelling can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the student believes the label given to them and the label becomes true in practise. They concluded this on the basis of a classic ‘Field Experiment’ to test the effects of teacher labels, which consisted of the following:

  • Stage one – tested the IQ (intelligence) of all pupils in the school

  • Stage two – gave teachers a list of the top 20% most intelligent pupils. However, this list was actually just a random selection of student names

  • Stage three –One year later those students who teachers believed to be the most intelligent had improved the most.

  • Stage four –Concluded that high teacher expectation had resulted in improvement (= the self-fulfilling prophecy)

Labelling Theory Applied to the Media

Key Terms: Moral Panics, Folk Devils and The Deviancy Amplification Spiral

Labelling theory has been applied to the representation of certain groups in the mainstream media – Interactionists argue that the media has a long history of exaggerating the deviance of youth subcultures in particular, making them seem more deviant than they actually are, which creates a ‘moral panic’ among the general public, which in turn leads to the authorities clamping down on the activities of those subcultures, and finally to the individuals within those subcultures responding with more deviance.

A moral panic is “an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group in society.” Deviant subcultures have often been the focus of moral panics. According to Interactionists, the Mass Media has a crucial role to play in creating moral panics through exaggerating the extent to which certain groups and turning them into ‘Folk Devils’ – people who are threatening to public order.

In order for a moral panic to break out, the public need to believe what they see in the media, and respond disproportionately, which could be expressed in heightened levels of concern in opinion polls or pressure groups springing up that campaign for action against the deviants. The fact that the public are concerned about ‘youth crime’ suggest they are more than willing to subscribe to the media view that young people are a threat to social order.

The final part of a moral panic is when the authorities respond to the public’s fear, which will normally involve tougher laws, initiatives and sentencing designed to prevent and punish the deviant group question.

The term ‘moral panic’ was first used in Britain by Stan Cohen in a classic study of two youth subcultures of the 1960s – ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’. Cohen showed how the media, for lack of other stories exaggerated the violence which sometimes took place between them. The effect of the media coverage was to make the young people categorise themselves as either mods or rockers which actually helped to create the violence that took place between them,which further helped to confirm them as violent in the eyes of the general public.

4 – Labelling and Criminal Justice Policy

Labelling theory believes that deviance is made worse by labelling and punishment by the authorities, and it follows that in order to reduce deviance we should make fewer rules for people to break, and have less-serious punishments for those that do break the rules.An example of an Interactionist inspired policy would be the decriminalisation of drugs.

According to Interactionist theory, decriminalisation should reduce the number of people with criminal convictions and hence the risk of secondary deviance, an argument which might make particular sense for many drugs offences because these are often linked to addiction, which may be more effectively treated medically rather than criminally. (The logic here is that drug-related crime isn’t intentionally nasty, drug-addicts do it because they are addicted, hence better to treat the addiction rather than further stigmatise the addict with a criminal label).

Similarly, labelling theory implies that we should avoid ‘naming and shaming’ offenders since this is likely to create a perception of them as evil outsiders and, by excluding them from mainstream society, push them into further deviance.

Reintegrative Shaming

Most interactionist theory focuses on the negative consequences of labelling, but John Braithwaite (1989) identifies a more positive role for the labelling process. He distinguishes between two types of shaming:

  • Disintegrative shaming where not only the crime, but also the criminal, is labelled as bad and the offender is excluded from society.

  • Reintegrative shaming by contrast labels the act, but not the actor – as if to say ‘he has done a bad thing’ – rather an ‘he is a bad person’.

A policy of reintegrative shaming avoids stigmatising the offender as evil while at the same time making them aware of the negative impact of their actions on others. Victims are encouraged to forgive the person, but not the act, and the offender is welcomed back into the community, thus avoiding the negative consequences associated with secondary deviance.

Braithwaite argues that crime rates are lower where policies of reintegrative shaming are employed.

Evaluation of Labelling Theory

Labelling theory emphasises the following

– That the law is not ‘set in stone’ – it is actively constructed and changes over time

– That law enforcement is often discriminatory

– That we cannot trust crime statistics

– That attempts to control crime can backfire and may make the situation worse

– That agents of social control may actually be one of the major causes of crime, so we should think twice about giving them more power.

Criticisms of Labelling Theory

– It tends to be determinstic, not everyone accepts their labels

– It assumes offenders are just passive – it doesn’t recognise the role of personal choice in committing crime

– It gives the offender a ‘victim status’ – Realists argue that this perspective actually ignores the actual victims of crime.

– It tends to emphasise the negative sides of labelling rather than the positive side

– It fails to explain why acts of primary deviance exist, focussing mainly on secondary deviance.

– Structural sociologists argue that there are deeper, structural explanations of crime, it isn’t all just a product of labelling and interactions.

Revision Notes for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Notes  – 31 pages of revision notes covering the following topics:

  1. Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
  2. Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
  3. The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
  4. Labeling Theory
  5. Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
  6. Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
  7. Sociological Perspectives on  controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
  8. Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
  9. Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
  10. Social Class and Crime
  11. Ethnicity and Crime
  12. Gender and crime  (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
  13. Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
  14. Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
  15. The Media and Crime, including moral panics

Related Posts

The labelling theory of crime was initially a reaction against consensus theories of crime, such as subcultural theory 

Labelling theory is one of the major in-school processes which explains differential educational achievement – see here for in-school processes in relation to class differences in education.

Labelling Theory is related to Interpretivism in that it focuses on the small-scale aspects of social life.

Field experiments are one method researchers have used to evaluate labelling theory – especially Rosenthal and Jacobson’s ‘ Self Fulfilling Prophecy’, but there’s plenty more experiments demonstrating the existing of stereotypical labelling in practice – see this post on field experiments for more details.

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