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Critically assess the contribution of labelling theory to an understanding of crime and deviance

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Labelling theory is one theory suggested by sociologists as the explanation for crime and deviance. However, several different theories were in existence before the labelling theory came about. First of all there were the biological theories; these stated that the cause of a person acting in a deviant manner was due to a physiological characteristic or quality which they possessed. For example having a mesomorphic body type or having XYY chromosomes were believed to be causes of someone becoming a criminal.

Biological theories however are widely criticised as they do not take into account several patterns in the distribution within society of crime and deviance, which statistics show are apparent. For example there is an obvious pattern between social status and criminal convictions; there are many more convictions in the working class communities. However, physiological characteristics are randomly distributed meaning that as many upper class individuals should commit crimes as the lower classes, the biological theories give no explanation to why this is the case.

Another point for criticism is the difference in amount of convictions of the old and young, when in reality there are far more younger people commit crimes. If it was a biological factor causing someone to commit crimes this characteristic would remain with them the whole of their lives and therefore as many people would still be committing crimes when they were old as when they were young. Structural and subcultural theories came next. These theories began with Robert Merton’s theory of anomie.

He believed that working class individuals began to commit crime in order to attain the material success which they had been led to believe they could achieve. Sociologists Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin then built on Merton’s idea, they believed however that the pressure generated by society’s state of anomie caused the formation of subcultures which then led to crime. However, these theories were deterministic; they believed that crime and deviance happened as the result of an outside force acting upon it as Merton states, “The social and cultural structure generates pressure for socially deviant behaviour”.

They are also structuralist theories as they believe that a person’s position in the social structure determines their behaviour. David Matza, however, argues that if the cause of crime is what subcultural theorists say it is then deviant should enjoy different value systems to the rest of society and should act defiantly when arrested. However, this is no the case, they in fact employ what Matza labels ‘techniques of neutralisation’. These are arguments which they use in order to justify their actions and get themselves out of trouble such as saying the deviant act was an accident or pointing out that no one got hurt.

He also disagrees that there is a big difference between deviants and ‘normal’ people. He believes that what distinguishes deviants from other members of society is that they place a greater emphasis on ‘subterranean values’: the hunt for excitement, disregard of routine and a ‘macho’ perception of masculinity. These values are however also held widely by the rest of society. The only difference being whereas most of society expresses these values through non-criminal activity such as sport some individuals, especially adolescent males, slip into delinquent behaviour in order to achieve their ‘thrills’.

Here is where the labelling theory became introduced. This was a completely new approach to the explanation of crime and deviance initiated by interactionism. Interactionists were more concerned with agencies of social control; how they label certain behaviour as deviant and the effects of these labels. Interactionists dispute the functionalist assumption that there was an agreement throughout society as to what behaviour is criminal or deviant. They aimed to find out why certain behaviour was labelled as criminal or deviant in some contexts but not in others.

Howard Becker was one of the initiators of the labelling theory, he stated that “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infractions constitute deviance, and by applying these rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. ” By this Becker means that society create the rules which when broken form deviance. Therefore the generating of rules is the cause for crime and deviance. He says that deviance is not a distinctive form of behaviour but behaviour which breaks these certain outlined rules.

Becker presents well the idea that in some contexts certain behaviour is seen as deviant whereas in others it is not. For this he uses the example of injecting heroine, “The act of injecting heroine into a vein is not inherently deviant. If a nurse gives a patient drugs under a doctor’s orders, it is perfectly proper. It is when it is done in a way that is not publicly defined as proper that it becomes deviant. ” The act is only made deviant in a situation when society views it as inappropriate; the act itself is not illegal.

Edwin M. Lemert emphasises, like Becker, the significance of society and its reaction to deviant behaviour. He believes that there are two separate types of deviance, Primary and Secondary. Primary deviation consists of deviant acts being carried out before the individual is publicly labelled as a delinquent. Secondary deviation is when a person commits a deviant act as a response to society’s reaction to and labelling of them. He believes that society’s reaction can be named as the major cause of deviance, claiming that agents of social control are to blame for deviance rather than the deviant.

Emphasising this point of secondary deviation is Lemert’s study ‘Stuttering among the North Pacific Coastal Indians’. The North Pacific coastal Indians live a ceremonial life of singing, dancing and speechmaking. Right from a young age children are involved in the ceremonies and their parents stress the importance of a flawless performance. There is a particularly high sensitivity to any speech defect, and if one becomes apparent during their speech shame is brought upon the child and their parents.

Stuttering is not very common amongst North American Indians many tribes don’t even have a word for it in their language though it does sometimes occur. Lemert believes however that stuttering is in fact caused by societal reaction, by this he means that the child and parents anxiety over a possible speech impediment actually causes them. If a child is convinced that he may be a ‘stutterer’ he could in fact live up to this label. Lemert also carried out a study focusing on labelling and paranoia. The mental condition paranoia is when an individual imagines that they are being ‘persecuted by a well-organised conspiracy’.

Lemert states that when paranoia is suspected the alleged sufferer will be observed secrecy with doctors and psychiatric appointments being made behind there back, hence they become the subject of such a well-organised conspiracy. If they had not actually before believed that they were being watched they now may well sense that they are, as in deed is the case. They will begin to complain about feeling like this; this will lead those that have labelled them s paranoid to conclude that their suspicions have been confirmed.

The fact that the labelled ‘paranoid’ is right to feel as though they are being conspired against is forgotten. The labellers are therefore, effectively causing the individual who they have labelled as paranoid, even if this person had nothing wrong with their mental health to begin with, to become paranoid. The confirmation of the paranoia may lead to the labelled individual being sent to a mental hospital. They may then start believing that everyone else was right. They really are suffering from a mental illness and will accept their label.

Interactionists also challenged the functionalist’s view that deviants formed a specific group of the population. They concentrate instead on the interactions involved in branding someone as a deviant and the reasons why certain groups are more likely to be labelled than others. A particular study by Aaron Cicourel investigates this point thoroughly. Cicourel looked at the interaction between the people of the law and a potential deviant. He discovered that the police etc. had to make a series of decisions which were based on a personal set of meanings held by the participants.

First of all the police have to decide where to patrol, Cicourel found that they tended to go to inner city, low income areas as these are what the police as the ‘bad’ areas with high crime rates. They then have to decide whether to stop and interrogate an individual, they will stop someone if, in the polices opinion, they are ‘suspicious’, ‘strange’ and ‘wrong’. They then have to decide whether to make an arrest; Cicourel states that they are more likely to arrest someone if the individual’s appearance, language and demeanour fit the picture the police hold of the ‘typical delinquent’, which usually involves aggressive, stroppy behaviour.

The next decision is then down to the Juvenile Officer, he has to decide whether to charge the individual or not. They are most likely to press charges if the background of the accused fits the officer’s personal view of the ‘typical delinquent’ which usually involves broken homes, bad attitude towards authority, bad school performance etc. As you can see all of these decisions have been made on the basis of the police’s idea of the ‘typical delinquent’. The police expect working class youths to be the ones committing the delinquent acts and therefore it is only the people matching such a description which get arrested and charged.

Cicourel argues that this is the reason why delinquents and criminals are found amongst working class and that it is not due to Merton’s theory of anomie of the subcultural theories. Cicourel was angered by the fact that the police judged people on their appearance rather than the act which they had carried out. This therefore maintains those at the bottom of the social structure at the bottom purely due to the stereotypical view the police possess of them. The labelling theory however does have its faults. In many cases no explanation is given for the actual deviant act which occurs.

For example in the case of Lemert, he states that there is ‘Primary deviation’ which he states is not caused by society giving the delinquent a label but he doesn’t go on to say what the actual reason for the deviancy is. He simply says “There are probably any number of causes of primary deviation and it is largely a fruitless exercise to inquire into them”. He doesn’t bother trying to explain the cause of this deviance he just says there is no point in doing so. Cicourel also lacks some explanation in a certain aspect of his theory.

He states that the police arrest people on the basis of their view of the typical delinquent, however, he does not explain where they acquired this view of the stereotype of a criminal. They must have some reasoning behind this image but no thought is given to where it stemmed from. Also the labelling theory only deals with minor crimes and deviant acts such as stuttering and paranoia. It doe not even attempt to explain major crimes such as murder and robbery etc. it seems to choose to ignore these crimes completely, when these are probably the more important ones to make sense of.

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