Labelling Theory

A look at the labelling theory of sociology and how it applies to crime and deviance



Labelling theory first proposed by Becker who stated that 'deviant behaviour is behaviour so labelled'.

Becker explored the process of labelling and the person accepting the label they are given which results in it becoming their 'master status' which can then result in a self-fullfiling prophecy whereby a person lives up to their own label. Becker calls this the deviant career.

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The Labelling Process

A number of sociologists have identified a number of ways in which labels can be applied in a number of situations:

-       Becker / Malinowski – Pacific islanders

-       Lemert – Costal inuits of Canada

-       Chambliss – Saints and Roughnecks

-       Chambliss – the RDU

-       Braithwaite – Shaming

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Deviancy amplification, Moral panics and Folk Devi

There are again a number of theories who suggested different things about the media's role in labelling theory:

-       Becker – Outlawing of cannabis – rule creation

-       Jack Young – Drug use in N London

-       Stan Cohen – Mods and Rockers

-       McRobbie and Thronton – Updated approach to moral panics (evaluation)

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Criticisms of Labelling Theory

-       Critics say that labelling theory is too sympathetic towards the offender and sees the offender as a ‘victim’ and neglects the fact that they have committed a crime

-       Labelling theory focuses too much on the labelling theory and why someone commits crime in the first place

-       Too deterministic as in once a person is labelled they are stuck with that label and they neglect the fact that people may be able to resist the label

-       Focuses too much on the crimes of the working class, neglecting the crimes of the powerful within society.

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Key Terms

-       Moral entrepreneurs – these are people who want to get laws made either for their own interests or simply on their own moral basis.

-       Moral crusade – The process of getting a law made such as lobbying politicians or contacting the media

-       Deviance amplification – by focusing on deviant behaviour it causes more people to be deviant due to the fact that there is a self fulfilling prophecy

-       Moral panic – where the media focuses on one group to cause panic and outrage within the public

-       Folk devils – making something appear as the root of problems in society. This makes people want to fix it.

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