Critically evaluate the contribution that the Labelling theory has made to our understanding of the nature of Crime and Deviance
Most approaches to the understanding of crime and deviance, (except Marxism) accept there is a difference between those who offend and those who don’t. However, one group of sociologists, influenced by symbolic interactionism, have questioned this approach, arguing that the approach is mistaken in the assumption that lawbreakers are different from the law-abiding. The Labelling theory is greatly influenced by symbolic interactionism and instead suggests that most people commit deviant or criminal acts, but only some people are caught and stigmatized for it. This approach to the understanding of crime and deviance is an opinion-dividing one, facing many criticisms. It is unique in that, unlike other theories on crime and deviance, it argues that it is pointless trying to search for the differences between deviants and non-deviants and instead, suggests the stress should be upon understanding the reaction to, and definition of, deviance rather than on the causes of the initial act.
Howard Becker made, arguably, one of the most important contributions to understanding crime and deviance through the development of labelling theory. Becker states that no act is criminal or deviant until it has been labelled as such by others, or “deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label”. The criminal or deviant acts themselves are not as important in themselves as the social reaction to that act is. Becker, therefore, agrees with the idea that crime and deviance are socially constructed. Becker’s studies show that being labelled as a deviant can have important consequences for a person’s identity. If the label of criminal or deviant is successfully applied, the negative label becomes a master status, which cancels out the other statuses that an individual has. It can result in excluding an individual from different social activities, such as work and other mainstream society; therefore, deviants are left to find support with others in similar situations. This is likely to reinforce a deviant lifestyle, leading to the development of further deviant acts and even to a deviant career.
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This could ultimately lead to the creation of deviant sub-cultures. However, there have been many fundamental criticisms of Howard Becker’s theory. Most prominent being that it fails to explain why people commit crimes and completely neglects power and social structure and therefore cannot explain why certain types of people are regularly and repeatedly identified as criminal or deviant, although labelling theorists claim to provide a voice for those who are labelled as deviant and are’ outsiders’ or the ‘underdog’.
Furthermore, working with Malinowski, Becker’s ‘The Outsiders’ provides a very clear illustration of the labelling theory applied to the idea of crime and deviance. Malinowski describes how a youth killed himself when he had become publically accused of incest. Malinowski first inquired about the case and found that the Islanders, of the home belonging to the boy, reacted with horror and disgust of the boys’ offence. However, on further investigation, Malinowski found that incest was not uncommon on the island and as long as it was kept discreet, was not a problem. He found that if an incestuous affair became to the public, the islanders reacted with abuse, the offenders were ostracised and often driven to suicide.
Malinowski’s investigation led to Becker’s argument that it is only when the person is labelled that there are consequences. He argues that because someone breaks a rule, it does not necessarily follow that others will define it as deviant, someone has to enforce, or draw attention to, the act of so-called deviance before his/her behaviour is defined as deviant. However, Liazos criticizes the labelling theorists for simply exploring marginally deviant activities, by doing so, they are reinforcing the idea of pimps, prostitutes and mentally ill people as being deviant. Even by claiming to speak for the underdog, labelling theorists hardly present any challenge for the status quo.
Labelling theory alerts us to the way in which the whole area of the crime depends upon social constructions of reality, law creation, law enforcement and the identities of the rule breakers are thrown into question. The media play a key role in all three of these processes, as most people’s perceptions of crime are actually created or at least informed by the media. British Sociologist, Leslie Wilkins showed how the response to deviance, instead of just by the individual, but by agencies such as the police and the media, can actually generate an increase in deviance. This was known as Deviancy Amplification. Wilkins stated that when acts are defined as deviant, the deviants become stigmatized and cut off from mainstream society.
They become aware that they are regarded as deviants and, as a consequence of this awareness, they become more isolated and even result in developing their own subcultures, which further confirms and strengthens them in their deviance. One example of this was provided by Jock Young, who used this concept in his study of drug use in North London. He showed that increased police activity led to drug use being ‘driven underground. This resulted in isolating users into a drug subculture, causing wide public concern over the new drug subculture, therefore only encouraged the police to intensify their clampdown on drug users further, which only served to accelerate the spiral of this amplification process.
However, Marxist writers argue what are the conditions under which some groups succeed and others fail and that labelling theorist fails to answers this. In fact, they argue, that the labelling theory does not have a coherent theory of power, as it argues that more powerful groups are able to impose their ‘definition of the situation on others, yet does not explain why some groups more power than others and are more able to get laws passed and enforced that are beneficial to them.
Additionally, Gouldner further criticizes labelling theorists with a Marxist argument, for the failure to provide any real challenge to the status quo. He argued that all they did in their studies was to criticize doctors, psychiatrists and police officers for their role in labelling but failed to ever look beyond this at more powerful groups who benefit from this focus on marginal groups. Gouldner’s Marxist argument claims that labelling theorists draw attention away from the ‘real crime’.
Additionally, one of the areas in which labelling theory has been most productive is in its analysis of mental illness and its treatment. Labelling theorists present a serious challenge to conventional approaches in two ways. First, they claim that mental illness is a label that is applied to the behaviour of certain people in certain circumstances. The mentally ill, are initially a little different from ‘normal’, it is just they have had the label ‘mentally ill attached’ to their behaviour, and this has consequences for their self-perception and the ways others treat and perceive them. Secondly, the very concept of mental illness is socially constructed. What is considered to be bizarre or unexplainable behaviour varies according to circumstance? It is not that certain forms of behaviour are essentially ‘mad’, rather that our definition of what is normal, and what is not, varies over time between different people. Labelling stresses the socially created nature of mental illness and the contribution others make to the acquirement of symptoms of illness that occur after the labelling has taken place.
The labelling approach has been criticizing for ignoring the reality of mental illness and for failing to appreciate the very real conditions which lead certain groups to have high rates of mental illness. Often mental illness derives from a lack of material resources and meaningful relationships, which results in feelings of worthlessness and despair. Mental illness does not hit the population randomly, but us far more likely to strike the poor than the affluent; females rather than males and blacks rather than whites.
Overall, while there are many criticisms of Becker’s labelling theory contribution to crime and deviance it is clear that despite its criticisms, it has had a major impact on the understanding of crime and deviance. Labelling theory has provided an alternative understanding of the nature of crime and deviance. It has developed the understanding of society’s reaction to, and labelling of criminals. It explores the perception of deviance from the individual and from social institutions and agencies. Although understanding crime and deviance through the development of labelling theory does not hold a complete answer or understanding, it does provide a very strong and convincing argument of what crime and deviance essentially is, and why we as a society label some people or acts as criminal or deviant.
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