Labelling theory suggests that deviance 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 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.
Lemert drew a distinction between primary and secondary deviance through a study of stuttering amongst a Native American nation. He observed that public oratory was important among the nation the 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 if people are labelled in a certain way and treated accordingly it has greater consequences than the original deviance.
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Labelling can be said to be variable with the application of a label varying with diverse factors such as place, gender and age. This helps in our understanding of crime and deviance because the way people react to or see criminal or deviant acts may vary, for example, homosexuality can be considered deviant to one person but normal to another.
Labelling theorist explains that some people may have the power to reject a negative label, while others are unable to gain enough resources to deny the negative label and must accept it, causing harsh consequences in later life as they may live up to their label and be treated according to their label.
Becker explains that once an individual or group is labelled in a certain way others only see them in terms of that label, he calls this master status, it also causes the individual or group to see themselves in terms of the label. This may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the label makes itself become true. There are many stages in this process, which can help in understanding crime and deviance.
When the individual is labelled as deviant they might be rejected from social groups encouraging further deviance. They may find it difficult to get jobs due to their record and return to crime. They may then join an organized deviant group confirming and accepting their deviant identity, this may produce a deviant subculture, which includes norms and values that support their deviant behaviour.
Despite labelling theories’ strengths in helping our understanding of crime and deviance, it has been criticized in several ways. It has been argued that deviance is not y the social groups who define acts as deviant, as some acts will always be regarded as deviant in our society such as premeditated killing for personal gain.
Labelling theory also fails to explain why individuals commit deviant acts in the first place, and it assumes that once a person has been labelled their deviance will increase. Individuals might simply choose to be deviant even if they haven’t been labelled. It also fails to explain why some people are labelled rather than others and why some activities are against the law and others are not.
However, labelling theorists’ main argument is that deviance and crime are the results of groups imposing their definitions of crime and deviance on others. The process whereby people manage to impose their views on others is through labelling. Overall labelling theory is very useful in understanding crime and deviance. It helps us see why certain acts can become known as deviant and how crime can happen from deviant behaviour.
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