Assess The Usefulness Of Labelling Theory In Explaining Crime And Deviance

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Focusing on interactionist approaches such as Becker (1963); labelling theory suggests that deviancy is a social process usually related to power differences but it doesn't explain the causes of crime. It does however explain why some people or actions are described as deviant, and can help in understanding crime and deviance. Becker argues deviance is a behaviour which has been labelled deviant by the reaction of others. This suggests that there is really no such thing as a deviant act. An act only becomes deviant when others perceive it as such.

The application of a label to someone has significant consequences for how that person is treated by others and perceives him or herself. Studies such that by Jock and Young (1971); exemplify Becker’s claim that there is no such thing as deviant behaviour. Interpretivist sociologists (interactionist) argue that we form our self-identity by interpreting how others respond to us and internalising the reaction. A label can have positive and negative effects on an individual and it helps define them in the ‘eyes’ of others. Becker calls this the ‘self-concept’.

Interactionist theory suggests that being labelled as deviant can actually increase deviant behaviour. For example if a person is in trouble with the police then they are more likely to resort to criminal activity or criminal behaviour. Jock Young (1971) used his study of drug users in Notting hill to demonstrate the process of becoming deviant. The studies showed 4 different stages. Firstly, the marijuana users developed a deviant self-concept because their drug of choice was illegal; then the deviant element became their main identity in society.

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They were considers ‘hippies’ first and foremost ; then the negative response of those around them and the police made the drug taking a significant part of their live and then their drug taking increased. Labelling theory is clearly validates behaviour. Additionally, Lemert (1972) identifies primary and secondary deviance. Primary being when deviance is not publicly labelled as much; secondary is deviance that follows once a person has been publicly labelled as deviant.

Lemert drew a distinction between primary and secondary deviance through a study ofstuttering amongst a Native American nation. He observed that public oratory was important among the nation yet displayed high levels of stuttering. When young boys showed any speech defect parents reacted with such concern that the child became worried about it and more nervous causing him to stutter. Therefore the primary deviance of the speech defect was not that important, it was the effect of the worried parents, labelling the child, causing the nervousness, leading to the secondary deviance of stuttering.

Thus showing that societal reaction, promoted by a concern about particular forms of deviance can actually produce those forms of deviance. Contrastingly there are critiques of Lemert and Becker’s studies. Akers (1967) criticises both Becker and Lemert for presenting individuals as powerless it make decisions or take control of their own identity. Deviance, according to Akers, is not something which happens to an individual, but a choice an individual makes.

Goffman (1961) substantiates the idea of labelling theory via his study of a deviant career in mental illness. He stated that the negative label of being mad is imposed on the patient by society and psychiatry, and the patient must eventually conform to it. However, critics such as Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) argue many forms of behaviour are widely viewed as deviant- so deviants actually know that they are breaking the law or social rules before the societal reactions however they still continue to do it.

Marxist sociologists accuse Interpretivist of ignoring the role of power in defining crime and deviance. Marxists state that certain groups have the power to influence what is classified as criminal or socially acceptable. Furthermore, Gouldner (1973) accused interactions sociologists of being fascinated with deviance, and even suggests they enjoy observing ‘cool’ deviants, and hanging out with the ‘underworld’.

In evaluation, it is evident that there are contrasting views on labelling and social influence on deviance. It is also evident that interactionist sociologists focus on ‘the little things’ and take the ‘micro’ approach to issues such as crime and deviance. They focus on interactions between individuals. One can criticise that by also focusing on the ‘bigger picture’ it may be evident how the small interactions affect the larger scale infrastructure of society.

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Assess The Usefulness Of Labelling Theory In Explaining Crime And Deviance. (2016, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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