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Outline and assess Interactionist theories of crime.
Since the 1950s, a group of sociologists called Interactionists have questioned the positivist
idea that those who commit crime are different from those who do not. The positivist
theory suggested that people were controlled by society and had little control over their
own actions (autonomy). Interactionism stresses that people are not controlled by society;
they in fact create and control their own societies throughout their lives, as their behaviour
changes from situation to situation depending on how they perceive the actions of others.
Interactionists show no interest in the causes of crime, as they accept that criminals are no
different from the rest of us because most people commit some form of crime or deviant
act in their lifetime. They emphasise the importance of societal reaction to deviant acts.
This reaction comes in the form of labelling. Most sociological theories would
suggest that after a deviant act has been committed, the reaction from society will be
unanimous; however, interactionists would argue that this is not the case. Different people
will attach different meanings to the deviant act that has been committed, and to the
perpetrator. The labels people attach to objects and others around them are relative to the
time, culture, place and the person themselves. This is demonstrated in the research of John
Kitsuse (1962) when he interviewed heterosexual students about their responses to what
they thought were sexual advances from people of the same sex. He found a wide range of
responses. Kitsuse's work suggests that there is no agreed definition of what homosexual
is, in the same way that there is no agreed definition of what is deviant.
What follows from being labelled as a `deviant' is that this label (for example:
paedophile) becomes their master status (Becker 1963) and affects how their actions -both
in the past and the present- are interpreted by others; all their other qualities become
unimportant. Cooley described the way we see ourselves as the `looking-glass self', meaning
that we build a picture of ourselves based on others think of us, and that is what we see in
the mirror. The way people perceive us and label us will affect the way we interact with
others. Edwin Lemert (1972) studied stuttering, and found that it was very common in one
Native American nation to whom public oratory was very important. Young boys' parents
would react to any slight speech defect they had, which would cause nervousness as the
boys would be sensitised to it and only amplify the problem, creating the stutter among
many of the boys. The stutter, as a result of parents' reactions, was the secondary deviance,
and was much more important than the original defect. However, Gouldner (1968) criticises
interactionism for perhaps romanticising criminals and drawing attention away from `real
Becker (1963) suggested that the process of taking on an identity given to the
individual (having a `career') is ongoing in the area of deviance. However, as Reiss' (1961)
study of young male prostitutes demonstrated, this process is also open to negotiation by
the person being labelled as deviant. Some individuals or groups find that they can reject and
dismiss the label. Although the boys had sex with other men, they regarded this as work and
regarded themselves as being `straight'.
After looking at how social life was affected by the process of labelling, theorists
began to study the process of law-creation. Becker (1963) doubted the arguments of both
Marxists and Functionalists and suggested that rules are the products of people's initiative,
people he called `moral entrepreneurs'. He states that moral entrepreneurs set about to
make certain acts illegal because it is in their own interests and/or they believe it is in the
interests of society. Becker used the 1937 outlawing of cannabis in the USA to illustrate his
theory. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics saw cannabis use as a growing menace in society
and, through a press campaign, successfully managed to make use of the drug illegal. Becker

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However, Marxist writers would criticise this idea, as it suggests
that all laws are passed as a result of intervention by moral entrepreneurs. If this is true,
then why do some groups succeed in doing so, while others do not?
A major advantage of interactionism is that it challenged the other, more simplistic
(Marxist) views of crime and overcomes problems with these theories. A problem
interactionism overcomes is the way deviance itself was largely ignored in Marxist theory;
they concentrated their ideas mostly on crime.…read more


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