Crime and Deviance Theme 3 - Interactionism and Crime

Interactionism and Crime

  • Crime emerges because of labelling from the authorities
  • Crime is the product of micro-level interactions between certain individuals and the police, rather than socialisation or blocked opportunities
  • Crime is a social construct - for example, in a low income neighbourhood, a fight might be defined by the police as delinquence whereas in a wealthy neighbouhood are a fight is 'high spirits'. The act is the same, but the meanings given to them are different. Therefore, deviance is a quality that lies in the interaction between the person who commits the act and those who repsond to it, it is not the behaviour itself (Howard Becker)
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Labelling Theory and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

  • Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by the CJS. 
  • Deviance is not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants
  • By applying labels to people and creating 'categories' of deviance, the power structure of society is reinforced
  • The more powerful and dominant groups in society (the wealthy, men, older, white) create and apply deviant labels to subordinate groups (the poor, women, youths, ethnic minorities) 
  • Once a person acquires a deviant label, it is harder for them to remove it. They become stigmatised as a criminal - they are then likely to accept this label and the fulfil the expectations of that label (self-fulfilling prophecy)
  • In extreme cases, a deviant label can become a 'master status' in which the individual's deviant identity becomes their only identity
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Aaron Cicourel

It is the meanings held by the police and juvenile officers that explain why most delinquents come from working class backgrounds

  • The police make the decision to stop and interrogate an individual. This depends on the behaviour taking place and how the police perceive the individual. Whether or not the behaviour is seen as suspicious depends on the setting (e.g. whether it's in a park, an alleyway, outside a shop etc.)
  • The individual is handed to a juvenile delinquent officer. The officer will have a picture of a 'typical' delinquent in their minds - dishevelled appearance, poor posture, speaking in slang etc. all associated with working class backgrounds
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Criticisms of Labelling Theory

  • It emphasises the interactive process of labelling and ignores the processes which led to the crime, such socialisation, opportunities etc. 
  • It is not clear whether or not labelling actually has the effect of increasing deviant behaviour 
  • Concentrates of marginal forms of deviance
  • Has a tendency to over-romanticise crime, which can distort the reality of it
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Deviancy Amplification and Moral Panics


  • Stan Cohen 'moral panics' - an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group or being in society (e.g. mods and rockers in the 1960s)
  • Moral panics create folk devils - the target of a moral panic, a scapegoat
  • The public believe what is exaggerated in the media and respond disproportionately. The authorities respond to public fear with tougher laws, initiatives and sentencing                                                              


  • Primary deviance - is identified and condemned, which leads to the deviant individual/group becoming socially isolated and resentful of the attention that they're receiving. 
  • This behaviour leads to an increased social reaction through the media and the state, which develops into secondary deviance if the deviant individual/group recreate themsleves into the image portrayed by these institutions 
  • The reaction from the authorities therefore increases, leading to new laws to 'deal with the problem'
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  • Too deterministic - implies that once someone is labelled as deviant, they will become deviant 
  • Gives the offender a 'victim status' - absolving them of the blame for their crimes 
  • Ignroes that individuals may choose to be deviant (Rational Choice Theory)
  • Fails to explain why people commit crime in the first - focuses on the interaction 
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