A2 Sociology Labelling theory

Revision cards for A2 AQA Sociology Labelling Theory in Crime and Deviance. Covers general info, Cicourel 'negotiation of justice', the effects of labelling etc.

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  • Created on: 03-05-12 16:57

The Social Construction Of Crime

Labelling theorists are interested in how and why certain acts come to be labelled as criminal. They argue no act is criminal or deviant in itself, it simply becomes so when others label it as such. It is not the nature of the act that makes it deviant, but the nature of society's reaction to the act.

This leads labelling theorists to look at how and why rules and laws are made. They are interested in the role of 'Moral entrepreneurs' (people who lead a moral 'crusade' to change laws). Becker argues that this new law has two effects -

  • The creation of a new group of 'outsiders'
  • The creation or expansion of a social control agency (e.g police) to enforce the rule.

Platt (1969) argues that the idea of 'juvenile delinquency' was originally created as a result of a campaign by upper-class Victorian moral entrepreneurs, aimed at protecting young people at risk. This established juveniles as a separate category of offender.

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Who gets labelled?

Not everyone who breaks the law is punished for it. A person's punishment (arrest,charge etc) depends on factors such as their interactions with the agencies of social control (police,courts), their appearance, their background, the situation and circumstances of the offense.

This lead labelling theorists to look at how the laws are applied and enforced. Their studies have shown that agencies of social control are more likely to label certain groups of people as deviant. E.G Piliavin and Briar found that police arrests on youths were mainly based on physical cues. Officer decisions were also influenced by gender, class and ethnicity.

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Cicourel - the negotiation of justice

Aaron Cicourel (1968) found that officers typification - their stereotypes of what the typical delinquent is like - led them to concentrate on certain 'types.' This resulted in law enforcement showing a class bias, in that working class areas and people fitted the police stereotypes closely.

Cicourel also found that other agents of social control within the criminal justice system reinforced this bias. E.G Probation officers held the stereotype that juvenile delinquency was caused by broken homes, poverty and bad parenting. Therefore they saw youths from these backgrounds as likely to offend in future.

In Cicourel's view, justice is negotiable. E.G When a middle class youth was arrested, he was less likely to be charged. This is because his background did not fit the idea of a typical delinquent, and also because his parents were more likely to be ale to negotiate successfully on his part. As a result, he was typically released and not prosecuted.

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The effects of labelling

Lemert (1951) distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to deviant acts that have not been publicly labelled. Lamert argues it is pointless to seek the causes of these, as they are unlikely to have a single cause and are usually trivial.

Secondary deviance is the result of societal reaction. Being caught and named as a criminal can be shameful,humiliating etc. Once an individual is labelled, others come to see him only in terms of the label. This becomes his master status or 'controlling identity'. This can provoke a crisis for the individual's self concept. One way to resolve this crisis is for the deviant to accept the label and see themselves as the world sees them. In turn, this may lead to self fulfilling prophecy. Lemert refers to the further deviance that results from self fulfilling prophecy as secondary deviance.

Jock Young (1971) uses the concepts of secondary deviance in his study of hippy marijuana users. Initally, drugs were peripheral to the hippies lifestyle - an example of primary deviance. However, labelling by the police led the hippies to see themselves as outsiders. They retreated into closed groups and began to form a deviant subculture.

These studies show that is is not the act itself, but the hostile societal reaction that creates serious deviance.

However, Downes and Rock (2003) point out that we cannot predict whether someone who has been labelled will be deviant, because they are always free to choose not to be deviant.

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Deviance Amplification

This is a term labelling theorists use to describe a process in which the attempt to control deviance leads to an increase in the level of deviance. This leads to greater attempts to control it and in turn, this produces higher levels of deviance.

An example is Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral panics, a study of the societal reaction to the mods and rockers in Clacton in 1964. (Media exaggeration, distorted reporting > moral panic > police response by arresting more youths > courts impose harsher penalties.

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Labelling and Criminal Justice Policy

Recent studies have shown how increases in the attempt to control and punish young offenders are having the opposite effect.

For example, Triplett notes an increasing tendency in the USA to see young offenders as evil. The CJS has re-labelled offences such as truancy as more serious offences, resulting in much harsher sentences. As predicted by Lemert's theory, this has resulted in an increase rather than a decrease in offending.

De Haan notes a similar outcome in Holland as a result of the increasing stigmatization of young offenders.

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Reintegrative Shaming

Most labelling theorists see labelling as having negative effects. However, John Braithwaite identifies a more positive role for the labelling process. He distinguishes between two types of shaming (negative labelling) -

  • Disintegrative Shaming - where not only the crime, but also the criminal, is labelled as bad and the offender is excluded from society.
  • Reintegrative shaming - by contrast labels the act but not the actor - as if to say 'he has done a bad thing' rather than 'he is a bad person.'

The policy of reintegrative shaming avoids stigmatising the offender and encourages others to accept them back into society. This avoids them being pushed into secondary deviance. Braithwaite argues that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where reintegrative shaming is the dominant way of dealing with offenders.

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Evaluation of labelling theory


  • It shows that society's attempts to control deviance may backfire and create more deviance.
  • It shows that the law is often enforced in discriminatory ways


  • It tends to be deterministic, implying that once someone is labelled, a deviant life is inevitable.
  • Its emphasis on the negative effects of labelling gives the offender a victim status. Realist sociologists argue this ignores the real victims of crime.
  • By assuming that offenders are passive victims of labelling, it ignores the fact that individuals may actively choose deviance.
  • It was the first theory to recognise the role of power in creating deviance, but it fails to analyse the source of this power. E.g it focuses on police who apply the rules rather than the capitalist class who make the rules. It also fails to explain the origin of the labels or why they are applied to certain groups.
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