Interactionism and Labelling Theory



This sees our interaction with one another as based on meanings or labels. E.g. ‘criminal’ is a label that policemay attach to others during their interactions.

Pilavin and Briar (1964) found police decisions to arrest were based on stereotypical ideas about a person’s manner, dress, gender, class and ethnicity, and the time and place.

Pilavin, I and Briar, B (1964) ‘Police Encounters with Juveniles’ , American Journal of Sociology.

‘Crime’ and ‘Criminals’ are social constructs – meanings that we create through our social interactions.

Interactionalists reject the use of crime statistics compiled by the police. They argue that the statistics measure what the police do rather than what the criminals do.

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Tannenbaum is widely regarded as the first labelling theorist.

His main concept was the ‘dramatization of evil’. He stated that if a person is described as being a criminal then he automatically becomes one.

Tannenbaum, F (1938) Crime and the Community. Columbia University Press.

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Becker (1963) argues that instead of the deviant motives leading to the deviant behaviour it is the other way around

The deviant behaviour in time = produces the deviant behaviour

Becker, S. H. (1963) Outsiders, Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

Learning the technique – proper way to smoke the drug

Learning to perceive the effects – Becker suggests that ‘being high’ consists of a) the presence of particular symptoms and b) the ability to recognise the symptoms

Learning to enjoy the effects – the effects are not necessarily or immediately pleasurable (taste is a socially acquired one)

Becker,  H (1953) Becoming a Marihuana User. The American Journal of Sociology. 59(3) pp. 235-242

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Labelling Theory

No action in itself is deviant, it has to excite some social reaction. It depends upon who sees the action happening and what is done about the action in response.

‘The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behaviour is the behaviour that people so label’

(Becker, 1963, p.9)

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Societal Reaction Theory

Lemert argues that labelling is a cause of crime and deviance.

Primary deviance

Acts that have not been publicly labelled. They are often trivial and most go uncaught/detected e.g. travelling on trains without paying (the individuals do not see themselves as criminal)

Secondary deviance

Results from labelling. People who treat the offender solely in terms of his/her label, which becomes the master status or controlling identity e.g. a thief rather than a father/mother etc (the label comes a part of the individual’s self-concept)

The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Labelling theory shows that the law is not a fixed set of rules to be taken for granted, bit something whose construction we need to explain

It shifts the focus onto how the police create crime by applying labels based on their stereotypes (‘typifications’) of the ‘typical criminal’. This selective law enforcement may explain why the working class and minority groups are over-represented in the crime statistics.

It shows how attempts to control deviance can trigger a deviance amplification spiral (e.g. in a moral panic) and create more deviance.

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It wrongly implies that once someone is labelled, a deviant career is inevitable. Ackers (1975) suggests that individuals might simply choose to be deviant, regardless of whether they have been labelled

It fails to explain why people commit primary deviance in the first place, before they were labelled

It does not explain where the power to label comes from. It focuses on the police who apply the labels, rather than on the capitalist class (upper class) who make the rules

It fails to explain why the labels are applied to certain groups (e.g. the working class) but not to others

Its emphasis on the negative effects of labelling gives offenders a ‘victim status’ ignoring the real victims

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