Labelling Theory of Crime – A Summary

People do not become criminals because of their social background, crime emerges because of labelling by authorities. Crime is the product of interactions between certain individuals and the police, rather than social background.

Crime is Sociology Constructed

  • There is no such thing as an inherently deviance act

  • Howard Becker (1963) “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’.”

  • Becker – The Outsiders – Malinowski – Incest example

  • Applies to drugs – compare illegal ‘legal’ highs UK to legal weed in Colorado

Not everyone who is deviant gets labelled as such

  • Whether an actor is labelled as deviant depends on: their interactions with the police, their background/ appearance, the circumstances of the offence.

  • negative labels (deviant/ criminal) are generally given to the powerless by the powerful.

  • Cicourel – first stage – working class kids more likely to be labelled as deviant by police; second stage – more likely to be prosecuted by courts, most of this is based on appearance and language, not the deviant act.

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

  • Lemert – primary and secondary deviance

  • Becker – labelling, the deviant career and the master status

  • Labelling theory applied to education – the self-fulfilling prophecy

  • Moral panics, folk devils and deviancy amplification

Labelling theory should promote policies that prevent labelling minor acts as deviant

  • Decriminalisation (of drugs for example)

  • Reintegrative shaming to label the act, not the criminal.

Evaluations

Positive

Negative

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.

– 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 negativesides 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.

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