Labelling Theory Deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is nothing inherently deviant in any human act, something is deviant only because some people have been successful in labelling it so. J. L Simmons The definition of the situation implies that if you define a situation as real, it is real only in its consequences. INTRODUCTION Labelling theory, stemming from the influences of Cooley, Mead, Tannenbaum, and Lemert, has its origins somewhere within the context of the twentieth century. However, Edwin Lemert is widely considered the producer and founder of the original version of labelling theory.
This paper, not a summary, provides a brief history of labelling theory, as well as, its role in the sociology of deviance. It attempts to explore the contributions made by labelling theorists, the criticism towards labelling theorists, and the discussion surrounding its reality as an actual theory. In essence, the main focus of this paper besides proving an understanding of Howard Becker, is to describe and evaluate `labelling theory` to the study of crime and deviance, by way of an in depth discussion. THEORETICAL IMAGES The theoretical study of societal reaction to deviance has been carried out under different names, such as, labelling theory, interactionist perspective, and the social constructionist perspective. In the sociology of deviance, the labelling theory of deviant behaviour is often used interchangeably with the societal reaction theory of deviancy.
As a matter of fact, both phrases point equally to the fact that sociological explanations of deviance function as a product of social control rather than a product of psychology or genetic inheritance. Some sociologists would explain deviance by accepting without question definitions of deviance and concerning themselves with primary aetiology. However, labelling theorists stress the point of seeing deviance from the viewpoint of the deviant individual. They claim that when a person becomes known as a deviant, and is ascribed deviant behaviour patterns, it is as much, if not more, to do with the way they have been stigmatized, then the deviant act they are said to have committed. In addition, Howard S.
Becker (1963), one of the earlier interaction theorists, claimed that, social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitute deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. Furthermore, the labelling theoretical approach to deviance concentrates on the social reaction to deviance committed by individuals, as well as, the interaction processes leading up to the labelling. INFLUENCES Labelling theory was significantly influenced by the Chicago School and Symbolic Interactionism. The sociology department in the University of Chicago is where early labelling theorists received their graduate training. These theorists were trained in terms of symbolic interaction and specific methods of participatory field research. The symbolic interaction theory exposed early theorists to the study of social interaction, as well as, the interpretation of society from the actor’s point of view. Everett Hughes and Alvin Gouldner were two of the earliest theorists to train at the Chicago School.
However, the foundations of this view of deviance were said to have been first established by Edwin Lemert (1951) and were subsequently developed by Howard S. Becker (1963). As a matter of fact, labelling theory has subsequently become a dominant paradigm in the explanation of deviance. Furthermore, the symbolic interaction perspective was extremely active in the early foundations of labelling theory. Labelling theory is constituted essentially by two propositions.
The first is that deviant behaviour is to be seen not simply as the violation of a norm, but as any behaviour which is successfully defined or labelled as deviant. The deviance does not inhere in the act itself but in the response of others to that act. In other words, the deviance is said to be in the eye of the beholder. The second proposition claims that labelling produces or amplifies deviance. The deviant’s response to societal reaction leads to secondary deviation by which the deviant comes to accept a self-image or self-definition as someone who is permanently locked within a deviant role. Furthermore, the distinctiveness of the approach is that it draws attention to deviance as the outcome of social imputations and the exercise of social control.
Labelling theory is very complex, making it quite different than other theories. Instead of looking at why some social groups commit more crime, labelling theory asks why some people committing some action come to be defined as deviant, while others do not. Labelling theory is also interested in the effect of labelling individuals. As well, labelling theorists note that most people commit crimes at some time in their lives but not everyone becomes defined as deviant or criminal. How does this process of defining a person as deviant work? Look at a situation where a policeman holds stereotypes about typical criminals. They use these stereotypes to interpret the behaviour of suspected deviants.
In other words, the closer a person comes to the stereotype held by the police, the more likely they are to be arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime. Furthermore, once someone has been successfully labelled or stigmatized as criminal or deviant, the label attached may become the dominant label. MASTER STATUS In labelling theory, the dominant label is most often referred to as the master status. The master status is the attached label that is normally seen as a characteristic of more importance than all other aspects of the person. For example, he or she becomes a hooligan or thief rather than a father, mother or friend. Each label carries with it something.
For some people once a deviant label has been applied, in terms of a deviant self-concept, they accept themselves as a deviant, however, this can only make room for further deviant acts to be made. This happens when people start acting in the way they have been labelled. For example, a man caught in an isolated act of stealing may be convicted, sent to prison, labelled as a criminal, and later as an ex-con. Friends will most likely not want to associate with him and employers will not employ him due to his criminal record. In other words, the man is stigmatized as a general deviant and as a consequence, he is excluded from all conventional associations and contacts. As well, this type of situation makes it very difficult for the man to maintain the identity of a non-deviant person.
As a result, the man may begin to see himself primarily as a criminal, especially as he now knows many other so-called ex-cons from his time in prison. Since everyone treats him as a criminal anyway and he can’t get a job, he may then turn to crime as a way of life, perhaps with the aid of the deviant subculture in which he probably made connections with. Furthermore, if this happens, although he may not have had any other choice, nevertheless, he has now embarked on a deviant career. DEVIANT CAREER The concept of a deviant career refers to a sequence of stages through which the rule-breaker may evolve into a full-fledged deviant or outsider (Becker, 1963). According to Becker, after the individual has been labelled as deviant, they progress down the path of a deviant career and it becomes hard to shake off the deviant label as others see it as a master status of the individual. He points out that when studying deviant people one should not take their deviance for granted, as one cannot assume that these people have actually committed a deviant act or broken some rule, because the process of labelling theory may not be infallible.
In other words, to be labelled deviant does not necessarily mean that the individual is, or has been deviant in the past. In addition, Kai T. Erikson (1966) also highlights the way social reaction affects the deviant individual. He reinforces what Becker had previously suggested saying that deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behaviour, it is a property conferred upon these forms by the audiences which directly or indirectly witness them (Erikson,1966). He suggests that deviance is necessary to society’s stability, rather than being responsible for its breakdown, as the deviant individual serves as a marker of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and as Erikson writes, in doing so, he shows us the difference between the inside of the group and the outside.
He goes on to bring forward the question of whether or not the labelling of deviant individuals is necessary in holding society together. As well, is it fair to say that in order to perpetuate this, societies are organised in such a way as to promote this resource. In other words, is it possible that the procedure of creating deviant individuals, although unfair, must continue, as scapegoats are necessary for the moral safety of the rest of society? NEGATIVE LABELLING Aaron V. Cicourel (1968), explains the treatment of delinquents in two similar Californian cities by using labelling theory. He claims that a difference in juvenile justice can be accounted for by different policies of the police, and by the ability of middle class parents to negotiate justice.
He concludes by stating that some individuals are more likely than others to be labelled as deviant, due to their status in life. This theory was reinforced by E. M. Schur(1971), who discusses the drug addiction of many doctors, or the likelihood of bank tellers to misappropriate funds. Schur suggests that in both cases the actor has legitimate access to drugs or money, which gives them some protection against being discovered, as opposed to the case of an addict buying drugs on the street, or an armed robber holding up the bank. He suggests that resistance to negative labelling is built into ‘opportunity’ (1971).
Schur claims that opportunity structures may determine initial deviation, but societal reactions to such deviation will significantly determine future opportunities. However, labelling theorists have had their work criticised on many levels, and these criticisms must be examined before any evaluation of the contribution of the labelling theorists to the sociology of deviance can be made. CRITICISM Becker examines some of the criticisms and feels that labelling theory wa …