Interactionism and Crime

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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 23-01-13 18:45


Interactionists examine small-scale social interactions to understand the meanings and definitions that shape behaviour.

Rather than focusing on the causes of deviance, Interactionists examine how agencies of social control (e.g. police, courts, etc) label particular actions as deviant and the consequences of this on those labelled as deviant. 

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Becker: Labelling Theory

There is nothing intrinsically deviant about any act.  It only becomes deviant when it is labelled as deviant.

Taking illegal drugs would be deviant, as agencies of social control define it as deviant. Whereas having a vaccination would not be defined as deviant because it is a medical procedure.

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Cicourel: negotiations of justice

Cicourel argues that police hold typifications of typical deviants (i.e. common sense ideas about who typical deviants are).

For example, the police are more likely to believe criminals are working class; therefore, the police are more likely to stop, search and arrest working class people. This confirms their view of the typical deviant.

Police and probation officers use this image of the typical delinquent when arresting and charging offenders. Those closest to the image are more likely to be charged; those furthest from the image least likely.

Therefore, the police not only create the typical delinquent, but also the social characteristics of the typical delinquent.

Furthermore, parents of middle class children could negotiate justice with the police, ensuring their son/daughter would be closely watched and kept out of trouble. Therefore, agents of social control not only create typical delinquents but also the characteristics of typical delinquents.

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Lemert: primary and secondary deviance

Lemert recognises the importance of societal reaction to the deviant. He distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance: primary deviance has not been publically labelled as such; secondary deviance has been publically labelled and this creates a societal reaction to how society perceives the individual labelled as deviant.

This deviant label can become the individual’s master status, whereby their status as a deviant overrides their other statuses.  This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the individual begins to accept their deviant label and then commits more deviance. Therefore, the reaction of society actually encourages further deviance

1.       Societal reaction can be seen as the major cause of deviance. The North Pacific coastal Indians have a rich ceremonial life which involves speechmaking. Their legends and stories are filled with references to famous orators and outstanding speeches. From an early age, children are initiated into ceremonial life and parents stress the importance of a faultless performance. If they do not meet these standards, children shame their parents and suffer the ridicule of their peers. Children and parents alike are anxious about any speech irregularity and respond to it with guilt and shame. Lamert found that, compared to other villages, the North Pacific Coastal Indians had more children who stuttered, which reinforces the view that societal reaction influences behaviour.

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Young studied ‘hippy’ marijuana users in Notting Hill. He noticed how the reaction to the hippies by police actually caused more marijuana use. Therefore, rather than controlling or preventing deviance, the police unintentionally encouraged it.

Police labelled hippies as dirty, scruffy, idle, scrounging, promiscuous, depraved, unstable, immature, good-for-nothing drug addicts The hippies’ gained the master status as marijuana users.

The hippies responded to this by increasing drug usage, which was primarily a peripheral activity and it became a primary activity. Police action against marijuana users united them and made them feel different

The hippies then rationalise and accept their difference. They exclude ‘straights’ not only for reasons of security, but also because they develop a deviant self-concept, as they use marijuana more often. In this context, deviant norms and value develop; thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy

Therefore, the act does not cause deviance but society’s reaction to it does. The process of social control, which is supposed to prevent deviance, actually has the opposite effect. 


This view is too deterministic: it assumes people live up to their labels rather than trying to resist or challenge the label.

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Labelling and a deviancy amplification spiral

Cohen showed how media amplification of deviance between Mods and Rockers actually led to more deviance, rather than preventing it. The moral panic identified the group as folk devils who were publicly labelled as deviant (i.e. secondary deviance); the public demanded more action against them (societal reaction); the police took tougher action against them.

This identified the Mods and Rockers as outsiders (master status), more young people identified with one of the groups who then responded with further deviance. Thus, the societal reaction created further deviance. 

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Reintegrative shaming

Government policies on crime have tended to create disintegrative shaming, where the act and the individual is seen as deviant. However, this could then lead to further deviance, as outlined above.

On the other hand reintegrative shaming – where only the act is labelled as deviant – avoids creating a master status and may allow the offender to fit back into wider society, thus preventing further deviance.

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  • Interactionism shows how the law is enforced selectively by the police and courts based on their image of a typical offender. (suggesting statistics of crime are simply a record of police, rather than criminal activity.) Also, it shows how society can cause deviance, rather than control it.


  •  However, labelling theory does not explain why an individual committed the act that led them being labelled in the first place. Nor does it explain why the police have an image of a typical delinquent.
  •  Furthermore, it makes the offender appear a victim of labelling (ignoring the victims of crime  see left realism)
  •  It is also too deterministic, assuming those labelled as deviant will carry further deviance – people may reject their label
  •    Finally, it ignores who makes the rules – see Marxism.
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