Labelling Theory

  • Created by: Oohla
  • Created on: 13-05-15 14:17

Becker - The social construction of crime..

Labelling theorists argue no act is inherently criminal or deviant in itself. It only comes to be so when others label it as such - society's reaction to the act.For Becker, a deviant is simply someone to whom the label has been successfully applied.

This leads labelling theorists to look at how and why rules are made. They are particularly interested in the role of moral entrepreneurs. These are people who lead a moral ’crusade’ to change the law in the belief that it will benefit those to whom it is applied. However, Becker  argues that this new law invariably has two effects:

  • The creation of a new group of ‘outsiders’- outlaws or deviants who break the new rule.

  • The creation or expansion of a social control agency (police) to enforce the rule and impose labels on offenders.

Becker notes that social control agencies themselves may campaign for a change in the law to increase their own power. Thus it is not inherent harmfulness of a particular behaviour that leads to new laws being created but rather the efforts of powerful individuals and groups to redefine that behaviour as unacceptable.

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Cicourel- the negotiation of justice - Study

Cicourel (1976) studied police in California.
found that officers’ held a similar image of the 'typical delinquent'. E.g. broken-homes, poor school, low-income. This resulted in law enforcement showing a class bias, young people that fitted this image were more likely to be arrestedCicourel found that other agents of social control within the criminal justice system reinforced this bias.

In Cicourel’s view, justice is not fixed but negotiable. E.g. when a middle class youth is arrested, he is less likely to be charged because his background doesn’t fit with the police’s ‘typical delinquent’.


Cicourel's study has implications for the use we make of official crime statistics. He argues that these statistics do not give us a valid picture of the patterns of crime and cannot be used as a resource. Instead we should treat them as a topic for sociologists to investigate.

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Lemert - The effects of labelling..

Lemert (1972) makes a distinction between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to deviant acts that have not been publicly labelled  e.g. speeding. Secondary deviance is the result of societal reaction- that is, of labelling. Being caught and publicly labelled as a criminal involves being stigmatised, shamed and humiliated.

Once an individual is labelled, others may come to see him only in terms of the label. This becomes his master status or controlling identity, overriding all others.
This may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the individual acts out or lives up their deviant label, thereby becoming what the label says they are. Lemert refers to the further deviance that results from acting out the label as secondary deviance.

Secondary deviance is likely to provoke further hostile reactions from society and reinforce the deviant’s ‘outsider’ status. This may lead to the individual joining a deviant subculture that offers deviant career opportunities and role models, rewards deviant behaviour, and confirms his deviant identity.
The work of Lemert illustrates the idea that it is not the act itself, but the hostile societal reaction by the social audience, that creates serious deviance. Ironically, therefore, the social control processes that are meant to produce law abiding behaviour may in fact produce the very opposite.

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Deviance Amplification..

The deviance amplification spiral is a term used 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 yet higher levels of deviance. More and more control produces more and more deviance, in an escalating spiral or *********** feedback process.

Young (1971) studied hippie marihuana users in Notting Hill. Police targeted this group that used marihuana as part of lifestyle. This widened differences between hippies and society. Drug taking then became more important to the group - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Example of Mods and Rockers - can be used to explain deviance amplification spiral – A moral panic which received press exaggeration lead to growing concern with moral entrepreneurs calling for a ‘crackdown’. The police responded by arresting more youths and imposing higher penalties. This seemed to confirm the truth of the original media reaction and provoked more public concern, in an upward spiral of deviance amplification. At the same time, the demonising of the mods and rockers as ‘folk devils’ caused further marginalisation and resulted in more deviant behaviour on their part.

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Reintegrative shaming

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 at the same time as making aware of the negative impact of their actions upon others and then encourages others to forgive him and accept them back into society.

This makes it easier for both offender and community to separate the offender from the offence and re-admit the wrongdoer back into mainstream society. Braithwaite argues that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where reintegrative rather than disintegrative shaming is the dominant way of dealing with offenders.

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Evaluation of Labelling Theory..

  • It tends to be deterministic, implying that once someone is labelled, a deviant career is inevitable.

  • Its emphasis on the negative effects of labelling gives the offender a kind of victim status. Realist sociologists argue that his 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 fails to explain why people commit primary deviance in the first place, before they are labelled.

  • It fails to analyse the source of power in creating deviance. For example, Marxists argue that it fails to examine the links between the labelling theory and capitalism.

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