Crime, Disorder, and Justice – The Labelling Theory As A Way of Explaining Social Reactions To Deviant Behaviour

A Critical Assessment.

Term Paper 2009 7 Pages

Law - Criminal process, Criminology, Law Enforcement


Crime, Disorder and Justice

The Labelling Theory As A Way of Explaining Social Reactions To Deviant Behaviour – A Critical Assessment.

In the 1960’s new deviance theories came up in sociology. One of them was the labelling theory, which offered new explanations of crime and deviant behaviour. This paper will critically assess to what extent the labelling theory can explain societal reactions to deviant behaviour and how these societal reactions work and influence deviant behaviour.

Primarily, labelling theory explains deviant behaviour as the result of society’s reaction to certain groups of people, who are marked as ‘losers’ and outsiders, who are no part of the regular society, furthermore it says that, by complying with this label, the labelled one becomes deviant as a consequence. As Becker states, ‘deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others…The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied…’ (Becker, 1963, p.9). Following this statement, deviance - labelling theorists prefer this term to ‘crime’ to cover a broader meaning - thus is created by society, so socially constructed. As a consequence, this means a person becomes deviant or criminal just because this person is called so (Eifler, 2002, p.47).

A further part of the labelling theory embraces the effect the criminal justice system has on the development of the deviant or criminal status of the accused individual. Here, the state intervention creates criminal careers by putting the stamp ‘criminal’ on the individual and thus operates in a criminogenic way (Lilly, Cullen, Ball, 2002, p.105-107 and Cavadino, Dignan, 2007, p.38).

The first focus shall be put on what, according to the theory, mainly creates deviant behaviour – the society itself. The majority of people does have fixed images of certain people or groups of people, they have their view of life and the world, a view which most often is hard to be changed as it is built up on heaps of prejudices, fears of the different, hatred against the unknown as a potential threat to one’s own life, social status or property, and last but not least, a media-made view determining good and evil in our world. As Downes and Rock put it, deviance is a sum of the ideas people have of one another (2007, p.160), so deviance seems to be a very individual and extensible issue.

With all this emotional ballast in addition to a great amount of self-righteousness people divide the world into good and bad and they are absolutely sure about who the bad ones are: juveniles out of shattered families, strangers, homeless, unemployed, poor people from the lower social class coming out of socially deprived areas, and so on. From their view, these individuals all are destined to fail within society – this is a matter of fact to them.

Now, the process of labelling within society is the following: Due to this ‘knowledge’ people tend to take the liberty to pass their judgement about an individual or a group of people not realizing, that this judgement can trigger a chain reaction of isolating and stigmatising these persons for the rest of their lives. A vicious cycle gets started in which the individual that has been given up by society will give up himself and start believing that he cannot any other than become deviant and criminal. By the outcome of his deviant behaviour society anew will feel confirmed in their opinion and will continue to classify the social value of other individuals [see appendix 1].

From the point of view of the stigmatised individual himself, the labelling process confirms him in his belief that he is not worth a lot and pushes him into the deviant direction as a natural consequence of his deprived childhood. His lack of any chance in society possibly makes him angry about society and might lead to acts of aggression due to these negative feelings. As no one expects any good from him, he does not feel the need to try any better. By this behaviour he accepts the negative status society has given him and while acting how he is expected to act, he confirms his labellers. Tannenbaum made a point here in saying, that ‘often deviants resolve their personal crisis by accepting their deviant status’ (McLaughlin, Muncie, 2006, p.229), which means, that they somehow make their peace with the fact, that they are (or have to be) deviant. It is their destiny [see appendix 1].

Deviance has to do with the infraction of moral values and norms in society (Becker, 1963, p.9) – but who is making these rules? Who is telling the people what is right and what wrong? The process of socialisation means learning and accepting social norms and values (Livesey, 2006). In an individual’s primary socialisation stage it is the parents who teach their offspring the norms and values of society as they themselves have been taught before, so it can be stated that behavioural patterns are ‘culturally transmitted’, just as deviance can be culturally transmitted (McLaughlin, Muncie, 2006, p.39). Concerning labelling, Cohen even speaks of the coding process where certain forms of rule-breaking draw special attention. Furthermore, he defines the deviant role as public, which means, that deviance only can emerge or exist along with the public criticism of certain unacceptable people and, in the first place, the definition of the phenomenon itself (Cohen, 2002, p.32, 138).

According to the theory of Tannenbaum, delinquent behaviour is a developmental process of self-identification, defining and segregation. Society’s reaction to the individual’s behaviour amplifies exactly these character traits the individual is accused of (Weidner, 2008 and O’Conner, 2006). This process is known as deviancy amplification.

By their way of reacting to deviant behaviour, the media form a powerful amplifier of the perception of deviance and by this contribute to deviancy amplification. This reverses the wanted effect and increases deviance (McLaughlin, Muncie, 2006, p.127-128). The same effect occurs with the labelling process: the reaction of society against certain people has a supportive effect on deviance rather than the effect to reduce or prevent it (McLaughlin, Muncie, 2006, p.229).

Lemert divided deviance into two stages - primary and secondary deviance. During the stage of primary deviance the deviant does not perceive himself as deviant, whereas in the second stage he accepts his deviant status. Hereby, secondary deviance is emerging out of societal reactions and aggravates the individual’s deviancy (O’Conner, 2006). But deviance only works in accordance with the social background of the labelling one. Depending on his own norms and values and maybe his life experience he will judge the other one (social context). In other words, meanings and motives of labelling are ‘a social accomplishment’ (Maguire, Morgan, Reiner, 2002, p.73).

As a community of members society holds a responsibility for all its members, the responsibility to give everybody a chance, also the ones who seem to be prone to deviance and no ‘full members’ of this society. Maybe it could be called a responsibility for the weak. But in the case of being labelled a deviant, the individual does not get the possibility to choose a life without deviance. This appears as a contrast to the choice criminals take when they decide to behave in a criminal way. The RCT (Rational Choice Theory) assumes, that the criminal individual weighs out his costs and benefits of his delinquent behaviour (Home Office, 2004) which underpins the underlying assumption that he is absolutely conscious of what he is doing, opposite to the individual who is driven into deviance by society’s reaction to his social status. So, the labelled deviant does not even choose to become deviant or to break society’s rules, but he is pushed towards this direction and has no choice to develop differently. Here, it could be stated, that he is deprived of the chance by society. At this point society denies its responsibility for its members.



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Title: Crime, Disorder, and Justice – The Labelling Theory As A Way of Explaining Social Reactions To Deviant Behaviour