Sociology: Interactionism and labelling theory


The social construction of crime

For labelling theorists, no act is deviant in itself: deviance is simply a social construct 

  • According to Becker, social groups create deviance by creating rules and applying them to particular people whom they label as ‘outsiders’ 

  • Thus an act or a person only becomes deviant when labelled by others as deviant

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Differential enforcement

  • Labelling theorists argue that social control agencies tend to label certain groups as criminal 

  • Piliavin and Briar found police decisions to arrest were based on stereotypical ideas about manner, dress, gender, ethnicity, time and place

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Cicourel argues that police use typifications of the ‘typical delinquent’. Individuals fitting the typification are more likely to be stopped, arrested and changed:

  • working-class and ethnic minority juveniles are more likely to be arrested. Once arrested, those from broken homes etc are more likely to be charged 

  • Middle-class juveniles are less likely to fit the typification, and have parents who can negotiate successfully on their behalf. They are less likely to be charged  

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Marxists criticise labelling theory for failing to locate the origin of such labels in the unequal structure of capitalist society

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The social construction of crime crime statistics

Working-class people fit police typifications, so police patrol working-class areas, resulting in more working-class arrests

  • Thus crime statistics recorded by the police do not give a valid picture of crime patterns

  • Cicourel argues that we cannot take crime statistics at face value or use them as a resource. We should treat them as a topic and investigate the processes by which they are constructed

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The dark figure

The dark figure is the difference between the official statistics and the ‘real’ rate of crime- so called because we do not know for certain how much crime goes undetected, unreported and recorded

  • Some sociologists therefore use victim surveys or self-report studies to gain a more accurate view

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But these alternatives have limitations, e.g. people may lie when asked if they have committed a crime

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The effects of labelling

Labelling theorists are also interested in the effects of labelling. Lemert argues that, by labelling certain people as deviant, society actually encourages them to become more so: societal reaction causes ‘secondary deviance’

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Primary and secondary deviance

Primary deviance is deviant acts that have not been publicly labelled. They have many causes, are often trivial and mostly go uncaught. Those who commit them do not usually see themselves as deviant 

Secondary deviance results from societal reaction, i.e. from labelling. Labelling someone as an offender can involve stigmatising and excluding them from normal society. Others may see the offender solely in terms of the label, which becomes the individual’s master status or controlling identity

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Labelling theory fails to explain why people commit primary deviance in the first place, before they are labelled


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Self-fulfilling prophecy

  • Being labelled may provoke a crisis for the individual’s self-concept and lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they live up to the label, resulting in secondary deviance 

  • Further societal reaction may reinforce the individual’s outsider status and lead to them joining a deviant subculture that offers support, role models and a deviant career 

Young’s study of hippy marijiuana users illustrates these processes 

  • Drug use was initially peripheral to the hippies’ lifestyle, but police persecution of them as junkies led them to retreat into closed groups, developing a deviant subculture where drug use became a central activity

  • The control processes aimed at producing law-abiding behaviour thus produced the opposite

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Labelling theory is sometimes accused of being too deterministic- of assuming that, once labelled, a self-fulfilling prophecy is inevitable. Although this is often the case, the individual is always free to choose not to deviate further

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Deviance amplification spiral

In a deviance amplification spiral, the attempt to control deviance leads to it increasing rather than decreasing- resulting in greater attempts to control it and, in turn, yet more deviance, in an escalating spiral, as with the hippies described by Young 

Folk devils and moral panics Cohen’s study of the mods and rockers uses the concept of deviance amplification spiral:

  • Media exaggeration and dis torian began a moral panic, with growing public concern 

  • Moral entrepreneurs called for a ‘crackdown’. Police responded by arresting more youths, provoking more concern 

  • Demonising the mods and rockers as ‘folk devils’ marginalised them further, resulting in more deviance

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Cohen and Young key difference with functionalism

The work of Cohen and Young points to a key difference with functionalism:

  • Functionalists see deviance producing social control 

  • Labelling theorists see control producing further deviance
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Mental illness and suicide

Interactionists are also interested in deviant behaviour such as mental illness and suicide

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Douglas: the meaning of suicide

Douglas argues that to understand suicide, wemust discover its meaning for the deceased. He rejects the use of official suicide statistics: they are social constructs that only tell us about the labels applied by coroners. To discover the deceased’s meanings, we must use qualitative methods, e.g. the analysis of suicide notes of unstructed interviews with the deceased’s relatives

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There is no reason to suppose that the sociologist's interpretation of the deceased’s meanings will be any truer than the coroner’s

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Mental illness

Interactionists reject the use of official statistics on mental illness as social constructs- just a record of the activities of doctors with the power to attach labels such as ‘schizophrenic’

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Paranoia as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Interactionists are interested in how a person comes to be labelled as mentality ill and in the effects of this labelled. Lemert shows how socially awkward individuals may be labelled and excluded from groups 

The individual’s negative response gives the group reason to fear for his mental health and this may lead to a medical label of paranoia. The label ‘mental patient’ becomes his master status

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Goffman shows the possible effects of being admitted to a ‘total institution’ such as a psychiatric hospital

Patients undergo a ‘mortification of the self’ in which their old identity is ‘killed of’ and replaced by a new one: ‘inmate’. This is achieved by ‘degradation rituals’, e.g. confiscation of person effects

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However, Goffman also shows the process is not deterministic. Some inmates resist being institutionalised 

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