This essay will critically examine the contribution of labelling theory to our understanding of deviance. Becker (1963a) defines the labelling theory as “the process where socially defined identities are imposed or adopted, especially the deviant label. Such labels may have consequences that trap the individual into that identity.” According to Browne et al. (2009), the labelling theory stemmed from interactionist views of crime and deviance and suggested that many people were involved in illegal or deviant behaviour, making it difficult to distinguish between them deviants and non-deviants.
According to Bilton et al. (1996), the labelling theory was interested in why only some individuals and acts were defined as criminal or deviant whilst similar acts carried out by others were not. The focus of the labelling theory was, according to Browne et al. (2009), the level of interaction between deviants and individuals who defined them as being so, and why some groups and individuals had been defined as deviant and the circumstances around this occurrence, how responses to rule-breaking were not the same in all circumstances and the process in which rules were selectively enforced. The assumptions used by figures of authority such as police officers when choosing whether or not to take action, for example, the compared response of an act carried out by a group of young black males or a group of young white males—the consequences of being labelled as a deviant such as deviance amplification.
The circumstances around when a person becomes defined as a deviant and analyzing who has the power to attach deviant labels. According to Lawson et al. (1999), agencies of social control such as the police force could use considerable selective judgement and discretion in deciding how to deal with an act of illegal or deviant behaviour. If the police were to prosecute all acts of crime, then the level of policing would require weighty levels, therefore massively draining resources that would not receive great public support; therefore, criminal labels are not attached to every breach of the law, and the same crimes do not always receive the same response. Becker (1963b) suggested that the police operated was with pre-existing conceptions and stereotypical categories of the individuals/groups that were criminals or deviants, which heavily influenced their response to the type of behaviour they may have come across.
A phenomenological approach to understanding how law-enforcers interpret what they see comes from Cicourel (1968); he suggested that the labels they attached were heavily affected by their subjective perceptions and stereotypes and how these led to the social construction of crime statistics. He studied juvenile delinquency in two American cities; in his study, he found that juvenile crime rates were consistently higher in working-class areas compared to middle-class areas. He argued that this was down to how police dealt with working-class juveniles compared to the middle class, even when they engaged in the same actions. He argued that the way the police perceived the two different classes of juveniles heavily influenced the action taken in regards to the crimes they had committed.
The difference between primary and secondary deviance was distinguished between Lemert (1972) he suggested that primary deviance was deviance that had not been publically labelled as such, breaking traffic laws and taking illegal drugs are both examples of primary deviance, he suggested that primary deviance had very few consequences for the individual as long as they are not known as committing these deviant acts. Secondary deviance, on the other hand, is defined by Lemert as “a deviance that follows once a person has been publically labelled as a deviant” this occurs once an offender is discovered and publically exposed, a good example of this is the stigma attached to an individual known to have downloaded child pornography. Becker (1997) points out that a deviant label attached to an individual could become a master status and override all other characteristics such as husband, father, manager or worker.
Browne et al. (2009) point that this master status is the status that others respond to and assume that they have all of the negative attributes of the label; therefore, sustaining an alternative image to the master status that is applied becomes very difficult, both in the eyes of the deviant and others. Becker (1997) suggested that a self-fulfilling prophecy and deviant careers stem from the labelling process and social recreation. He suggested that individuals who had been labelled were outcasted from society and faced serious rejection because of the label they had been stigmatized with. He believed that because these labelled individuals were placed outside conventional society, they continued to act even more in the way they had been labelled; for example, when someone has been to prison, they will never lose that label. This may lead to further deviance because they are unable to get normal jobs because of their “ex-con” status, there for seeing crime as the way of survival.
According to Browne et al. (2009), Deviant careers stem from an individual getting involved with an organized deviant group that provides a support network and understanding of the deviant identity. Becker (2007) suggests that “social recreation and the amplification of the deviant label produce more deviance than it prevents.” An important element of the labelling theory, as brought to light by Moore (1996), is the exaggeration made by the media involving any deviant or criminal act. The mass media heavily influences how the general public perceives any criminal or deviant act. How the mass media influenced crime was identified in two processes, were sensation which, according to Moore, is when an issue is developed by the mass media, making it aware among the general public.
Secondly, deviancy amplification is, according to Moore, a process adopted by the mass media to manipulate the public’s perception of deviant groups and/or individuals. Cohen (1972) carried out one of the most famous studies of deviancy amplification he studied the division between two rival groups, the mods and the rockers, during April 1964, he concluded that before any media coverage of events were present, there was very little animosity between the two groups, however, once the media started to heavily publicize the events and animosity between the two groups the problem quickly started to escalate. The contribution of the labelling theory has heavily influenced perceptions and understandings of deviant acts, according to Bilton et al. (1996). According to Browne et al. (2009), the contribution of the labelling theory has many strengths and some weaknesses.
According to\Browne et al., the strengths of the labelling theory include the fact that it provides an insight into the nature of deviance which is not provided by structural theories. Another strength of the labelling theory, according to Browne et al., is that it highlights the role of moral entrepreneurs such as the mass media and the role they have in defining and creating deviance and generating moral panics. The labelling theory has also played an essential part in how official crime statistics are a product of bias in law- enforcement. Although the labelling theory has many strengths, it also brings with it many weaknesses; according to Browne et al., these weaknesses include the fact that there is an assumption that an act is not deviant until it is labelled as such. Yet, many of the perpetrators of the deviant acts know perfectly well what they are doing is wrong.
One of the most important criticisms of the labelling theory, according to Browne et al., is “it does not explain why some people should be labelled rather than others, and why some activities are against the law while others are not, it points to the issue of power in the labelling process, but not as the Marxists have done, at the structures of power in society which create the wider framework for the labelling process.” The labelling theory, according to Browne et al., is too deterministic, and it does not explain the causes of behaviour that is deviant, which precede the labelling process, nor the different kinds of acts that people commit. For example, taking drugs is a completely different act in comparison to murder