Labelling theory is a bottom-up micro approach because it looks at the meanings and the reasons behind crime. Labelling theory is often referred to as the social-reaction theory because it focuses on the links between criminal activities and the reaction to these activities. As a theory it focuses on the process whereby some individuals or groups become labelled as deviant. Its usefulness can be gauged by its influence on subsequent theories such as New Criminology and elements of Left realism.
This is a focused introduction. A nice evaluative point is made in the last sentence.
Howard Becker developed labelling theory to explain how a person becomes deviant not so much through their actions as through social reactions. If a person’s behaviour is labelled deviant or criminal, he may become marginalised and be seen as non-conformist by society. This can result in the person being labelled as deviant and this label becomes their master status. This means that the person might identify with this role and continue committing criminal or deviant acts by turning to a deviant career. However, it is also important to note that labelling is not the only factor that might lead to a person turning to a deviant career. For example, the functionalists would talk in terms of anomie and blocked opportunities whereas Marxists would focus on structural inequalities like poverty and unemployment. Other theories thus challenge labelling theory’s usefulness.
This rather long but detailed paragraph unpacks and explains labelling theory and brings in key concepts like master status and deviant career. There is a good evaluative section at the end, which compares labelling theory’s ideas with functionalist and Marxist alternatives.
Edwin Lemert proposed that there are two types of deviance. Primary deviance refers to the act of deviance the person commits. Secondary deviance refers to the social reaction of the public (family and society) to the act. Like Becker, he implies that the social reaction is more important than the criminal act. Lemert gives an example of the fear of stuttering among Hopi Indians and how the social reaction of parents can lead to stuttering among their children increasing rather than decreasing. Thus the social reaction can encourage further deviance as a form of social construction. However, Akers (1967) criticised labelling theorists for presenting deviants as perfectly normal people who are no different from anyone else until someone comes along and slaps a label on them. There is often a good reason why the label is applied to certain groups or individuals and not to others. As long as labelling fails to explain this, then it is an incomplete theory and less than useful.
The work of Lemert and primary and secondary deviance are discussed using his example of Native Americans and stuttering. The work and ideas of Akers are used to evaluate labelling theory.
Steven Box, although generally associated with a Marxist perspective, can be identified with labelling theory and social-reaction theory. As part of a jury trying a case of a woman caught shoplifting, he found that other members of the jury put false claims on their expense forms. This shows that even though their fraudulent expenses were worth more than the value of the goods shoplifted, because there was no negative social reaction towards them, unlike the shoplifter, they were not labelled as deviant. Box’s study highlights the usefulness of labelling theory in showing how the social reaction is more important than the deviant act.
Box’s case study of jury service is a good illustration of how the act is insignificant compared with the social reaction. Note: although Box is not a labelling theorist, this example is a good illustration of labelling theory.
Jock Young undertook a participant observational study in Notting Hill. He found that the more the police tried to stop drug taking, the more it happened. Harassment from the police turned drug-taking from a peripheral act into an important symbolic gesture of rebellion. This shows that the social reaction served to increase drug-taking and became the drug-takers’ master status. This explains how crime can result from negative social reactions and encourage a rebellious attitude among deviants to the social reaction. However, functionalists and the New Right would challenge the usefulness of this labelling approach, pointing out that drug-taking is criminalised for a good reason and that the police were doing their job. Young’s response was that this overreaction to soft drugs in the 1960s led to an increase in hard
drug-taking in the 1980s.
Again the work of a non-interactionist is effectively used to illustrate labelling theory. When candidates do this in exam answers they should make this point explicitly; such recognition would gain AO2 marks.
Aaron Ciçourel studied juvenile crime rates and the police treatment of delinquent youths in two towns in the USA. He found that middle-class youths were able to negotiate their way out of trouble with agencies of control such as the police. This meant that they were less likely to be imprisoned or fined by police when caught. Working-class youths and black youths were less able to negotiate with the police and other agencies. As a consequence, Ciçourel was critical of official statistics, arguing that they do not reflect real crime rates, merely the activities of those least able to negotiate themselves out of arrest, prosecution and conviction. In addition, this labelling and stereotyping by the police may well antagonise certain groups, like black working-class males, who may be oppositional towards the police. Supporters of labelling theory argue that the police choose to concentrate on areas and individuals who reflect their ‘canteen culture’ world-view and consequently those groups have a higher chance of being arrested.
The work of Ciçourel is discussed in some depth here with good levels of analysis of his concept of negotiation. This is followed by a reflective discussion about the police. Note how nearly all the paragraphs in this answer end with reflective or evaluative AO2 points.
The interactionist Stan Cohen studied the moral panic that surrounded mods and rockers in the 1960s. This study shows how the media constructs and labels deviant groups as ‘folk devils’ by identifying ‘antisocial behaviour’ and exaggerating its extent. Marxists undertook another study of moral panic.
Hall et al. studied mugging and found that young black males were more likely to be associated with the label of ‘mugger’. This was because the media exaggerated this fear of mugging, leading to a social reaction that effectively labelled all young black males as potential muggers. Hall argued that a moral panic about black muggers was deliberately created to generate support for giving the police more powers at a time when capitalism was going through a period of crisis. However, Hall’s theory ignores interest groups other than the dominant class that can influence the law. It has been argued that history has recently repeated itself with a moral panic about Islamic terrorists being used to justify further reductions in civil liberties and granting more powers to the police.
Any answer on labelling will benefit from inclusion of Stan Cohen’s classic study of the labelling of mods and rockers following their 1960s confrontations. The creation of any ‘folk devil’ is a classic example of labelling. Hall et al.’s discussion of the social construction of mugging in the 1970s is then considered. A point not fully exploited here is that although Hall et al. are not interactionists, their study still usefully illustrates the labelling process. There is a good evaluative point about Hall et al.’s work followed by a useful reflection of history repeating itself in using people’s fears of terrorism since ‘9/11’ to justify strengthening state powers.
In conclusion, interactionist labelling theory views criminality as the result of negative labelling that might be linked to social class, ethnicity or gender. It is useful because it demonstrates that negative social reactions towards deviant or criminal people can be more important than the criminal act itself. Therefore, this theory can useful in explaining why ethnic minorities and working-class males seem to feature prominently in official crime statistics. However, others (such as realists) would argue that statistics are an accurate portrayal of who commits crimes, and Akers notes that there is often a good reason why the deviant label is applied to certain groups and not to others.
This is quite a long conclusion. However, it would be credited because it refers explicitly back to the question, which is what conclusions should do, and reflects on the findings of the essay.
1 Right realism was developed as an apparent response to sociology’s failure to solve the problem of crime. The term ‘realism’ suggests an approach that avoids idealistic theories to explain the causes of crime.
2 It has a negative view of human nature, seeing people as naturally greedy and selfish. It also assumes that human behaviour is voluntaristic and can be controlled through costs and benefits to the individual.
3 Murray’s work is a mixture of subcultural theory and Right realism. He views the underclass as a clearly distinguishable group of people at the bottom of society with their own deviant subcultural values.
4 Wilson and Kelling argue that if minor acts and visual reminders of crime (‘incivilities’), such as broken windows, vandalism, graffiti etc. are not dealt with, they will signal the start of a downward spiral into serious crime.
5 Wilson saw active citizens as people who challenge incivilities and antisocial behaviour. They then become responsible for reducing crime and, by reducing incivilities, they help to keep more serious crime at bay.
6 ‘Zero tolerance’ is a policing policy whereby minor incivilities are taken seriously and punished. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced zero tolerance in New York, the crime rate halved.
7 According to Marxists, crime is caused by the inequalities and exploitative nature of capitalism. Because Young claimed that Left realism should provide governments with practical solutions to the problem of crime, Marxists argued that he had ‘sold out’ since he had shifted from blaming capitalism to becoming a policy-maker.
8 ‘Military policing’ is what Left realism calls the police tactic of stop and search.
9 Subculture, relative deprivation and marginalisation are the three causes of crime according to Left realism. Left realists saw young, black, working-class males as particularly prone to criminality because of these three factors.
10 Left realism sees subculture as one of the causes of crime. It is important to understand the connection Left realism makes between subculture, marginalisation and relative deprivation. Left realists place a particular focus on the subculture of young, black, working-class males. The subculture of this group is seen as centred on the acquisition of material wealth. This is in marked contrast to the first generation of immigrants who largely accepted their marginalised position in society. Left realism argues that young black males’ subculture stems from the disparity between high material expectations and life’s reality of deprivation. This was graphically summed up by Stuart Hall as the choice between ‘unemployment or white man’s shit work’. Left realism argues that this results in feelings of unjust relative deprivation which, together with marginalisation, become drivers of criminal activity. Young, black males’ subculture is further strengthened by the frequent prejudice and harassment of stop-and-search policing, described by Left realism as ‘military policing’.