C+D Topic 4A

Interactionalist explanations: labbeling theory

  • Created by: Sasha127
  • Created on: 21-04-15 10:17


Interactionalists argue that definitions of normality and deviance are a social construction. This means they can be interpreted in different ways, deviance is therefor relative and will depend on a persons individual point of veiw, place which they live, culture they live in , time period and social contect which the activity occurs.

The interactionalist aproach rejects the idea that modern societies are organised around a value concensus instead interactionalists point out that socities are too complex for there to be a shared set of values. They point of that modern socities are characterised by a conflict of interests and a diversity of beleifs. This aproach to deviance suggests that there are competing sets of values that generally co exist alongside eachother. For example British society contians a range of ethnic minority and religeous subcultures which beleive in very different values and therefor definitions of normality and deviance compared with mainstream white culture. However these values and definitions rarely clash with eachother.

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Are offenders different?

Most aproaches to understanding C+D (with the exeption of MNarxist aproaches) accept that there is a difference between those who offend and those who don't. On the basis of this assumption they then search for the key factors which lead the person to offend.

However since the ealy 1950's one group of sociologists, influenced by symbolic interactionism have questioned this aproach. They argue that this aproach makes a mistake in its key assumptions that law breakers are somehow different from the law abiding. Labelling theory suggests that most people commit deviant and criminal acts of some kind, put only some people are caught and stigmatised fro it. So if most people commit deviant acts of some kind its pointess trying to search for the difference between deviants and non deviants, instead the stress should be upon understanding the reaction to and definition of deviance rather than on the causes of the intial act.

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Becker: the deviant carear

He is the founding fatehr of interactionalism

He argues that deviancy isn't a quality of the act a person commits but rather the concquences of the aplication by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is the one whom that label has been sucessfully aplied.

Acording to interactionalsits there is a process of becoming defined as deviant - the deviant carear:

  • primary deviation - commiting the act
  • Secondary deviation- getting caught, the label is aplied by moral entreprenures
  • if the label is succesfully aplied a master status will ensure and a self fifilling prophecy will occur
  • The individual has the power to reject the label and can negotiate his/her identity

Acording to Becker the deviant carear refers to all the processes which are involved in a label being aplied (or not) and then the person taking on the self image (or not) of a deviant.

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Becker: evaluation

  • this aproach extends beyond crime and helps us to understand any deviant or stigmatised behaviour. Labelling theory has gradually been adopted and incorporated into many other sociological approaches- Tayler Walton and Young have all used it in updating of marxist criminology, left realists and post modernists owe much to it as well.
  • Akers- criticised labelling theorists for the way he claims they present deviants as being perfectly normal people who are no different from anyone else until someone comes along and slaps a label onto them. He argues there must be some reason why the label is aplied to certain groups/individuals and not others. As long as labelling fails to explain this then its an incomplete theory
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Primary and secondary deviance

Lemert (1972)- distinguished between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is rule breaking, which is of little importance in itself and seocndary deviance the concequence of the responce of others- this is significant.

He studied the costal inuits of canada who had a long rooted problem of studdering and stammering. He suggested that the problem was "caused" by the great importance attached to cerimonial speaking, faluire to speak well was great humiliation. Children with the slightest speech difficulty were so concious of their parents desire to have well spoken children that they became too anxious of their own abilities. It was this very anxierty that lead to chronic stuttering. The chronic stuttering is the secondary deviance as a responce to the partents reaction to initial minor speach defects (primary deviance)

Those labelled deviant will eventually come to see themselves as being bad (or mad see Goffman or one flew over the cookoos nest). Becker used the term master status to describe this process and points out that once a label has been succesfully applied to a person then all other qualities become unimportant and are responded to solely in terms of master status.

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Primary and secondary deviance 2

Malinowski- describes how a youth killed himself bvecause he had been publically accused of incest.When he fist iquired about the case the islanders expressed horrar and disgust but on further investigation found incest wasn't uncommon nor really frowned upon provided those involved were discreet. However if an incestus affair became too obvious and public the islanders would react will abuse, the offenders were ostiricised and often driven to suicide.

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Primary and secondary deviance 3

Becker uses malinowski's study to argue:

Jusrt because someone breaks the rules it doesn't necessarily follow that others will define it as deviant

Someone has to enforece the rulles or at least draw attention to them- these people ususally have a vested interest in the issue, in the example of the islanders the rule was inforced by the rejected ex lover (moral entreprenure) of the girl involved in incest

If the person is succesfully labeled then the concequernces follow. Once publicaly labelled as deviant, the offender was faced with limited choices- one of which was suicide.

Phillips and Bowling- use concepts from labelling theory to understand the high crime rates amongst young black people. They suggest that this negative treatment by the criminal justice system may lead some menbers of black communities to feel hostile towards the police. They note that young blacks commit more street robbery than otehr ethnic groups and suggest that this is a product of the negative labeling that stems from constantly being stopped and searched by the police. Crime is an expression of hostility they feel towards the police. I.e police labelling produces a self fufilling prophecy as young blacks live up to the steryotype of potentional criminals.

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Rejecting labels and negotiability

Acording to interactionalists the process of being labelled is open to negotiation in that some groups or individuals are able to reject the label. An example of this is

Reiss's- study of young male prostitutes though they had sex with men didn't identify themselves as gay and saw the sex as work

Most sociological theories take for granted that once a person has commited a deviant or criminal act the responce will be uniform. This isn't true people respond differently to deeviance or rule breaking. In the ealy 1960's when gays were more likely to be stigmatised than now

Kituse- intervewed 75 hetrosexual students to elicit their responces to the presumed sexual advances from gays. What he found was a very wide rance of responces from complete tollerance to bizare and extreem hatred. One told him he had known that a man he was talking to in a bay was gay because he was talking about phycology. The point of his work is that theres no agreed definition of what constituted a homosexual advance- it was open to negotiation

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Regecting laberls and negotaitability: Evaluation

  • Marists- argue that labelling theory lacks a disscussion of the nature of power. Lbelling doesn't adress the issue of differences in power between groups which makes some more able than others to get laws passed and enforeced which are beneficial to them. In defence of labellign theory
  • Bekcer- suggests in famous article that we should "side with the under dog" however no overal theory is given.
  • Liazos- criticises labelling theorists for simply exploring marginally deviant activities and in doing so reinforcing the idea pimps, prostitutes and mentally ill people are deviant. Even by claiming to speak for the under dog labelling theoriests hardly present any challenge to the status quo because they don't apear to investigate the crimes of the rich and powerful
  • Gouldner- supports Liazos, arging that all they did in theior studies was to criticise doctors, phycologista and police officerts for their role in labelling and failed to ever look beyond this at more powerful groups who benefit from this focus on marginal groups claiming the attention is drawn away from real crime by labelling theirsts.
  • Some are criticised for rejecting the idea that the acts themselves are deviant and ignoring the impact and cause of primary deviance.
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Creating rules: Moral entrepreures

  • once labelling theories began the process of looking at how social life was open to negotiation and that rule enforcement was no different han other social activities then attention shifted to the creation of rules and laws. Why were they made? Traditionally sociologists had taken a Marxist perspective that they were made in the interests of the rulling class or more of a functionalist perspective which argued that laws in a democracy reflected the veiws of the majority of the population.
  • Becker doubted both these acounts instead arguing that "rules are the products of someones initiative and we can think of the people who exhibit such enterprises as moral entrepreures"
  • So labelling theorists argue that laws are a reflection of the activities of people (moral entreprenures) who actively seek to create and enforce laws. The reasons for this are either that the new laws benefit the activities directly or these activists beleive the laws are truely to the benefit of society.
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Creating rules: moral entreprenures 2

Beckers most famous example is his study of the outlawing of cannabis in the USA in 1937. Cannabis had been widely used in the south and its outlawing was a result of the successful campain waged by the federal beuro of narcotics who after the repeal of prohibition saw cannabis as a growing menace to society. Through a press campain and lobbying of senior politicians the beuro was successful in outlawing cannabis growing and use. However Becker argues the champain was only succeful because it "plugged in " to commonly hled US values such as :

  • 1 that people ought to be in control of their actions and decisions
  • 2 that pleasure for its own sake is wrong
  • that drugs are adictive and "enslave people"

He called it "a moral crusade" and its this terminology and moral entrepreures which sociologists use to describe movements to pass laws.


some sociologists acuse labbeling theoris of overstating anf generalising the impact of the media on shaping social responces to behaviour (see criticisms of moral panic)

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