Interactionist Theory - Labelling Theory


Key assumtpions

  • They reject official statisitcs on crime, making them part of their subject of study
  • They reject structural casual explanations of crime and deviance (e.g. functionalist and realist)
  • They look instead at the way crime and deviance is socially constructed.
  • They favour in-depth qualitative approaches when investigating crime and deviance. For example, informal interviews, observation and personal documents 
1 of 10


Becker maintains what we count as crime and deviance is based on subjective decisions made by 'moral enterpreneurs' (agents of social control). Thus he argues that deviance is simply forms of behaviour that powerful agencies of social control define or label as such. For example, doctors label overating and lack of exercise as deviant. Psychiatrists have medicalised certain unusual behaviours as mental illnesses such as caffeine induced sleep disorder and nightmare disorder. For Becker the socially created nature of crime and deviance means that it varies over time and between cultures. This can be illustrated with laws relating to prostitution. In the UK it is essentially illegal but in Amsterdam legalised brothels exist.

2 of 10


Ethnomethodologists support the interactionist/labelling view that deviance is based on subjective decision making, hence a social construction. They argue that 'deviance is in the eye of the beholder'. Thus what one person might see as deviant another might not. This can be illustrated with debates about 'conceptual art'. Some see the work of artists such as Tracey Emin and Webster and Noble as deviant or even sick, whereas others celebrate it as orginal and inspirational. 

3 of 10

The Labelling Process

Becker claims that the amount and distribution of crime and deviance in society is dependent on process of social interaction between the deviant and powerful agencies of social control. Becker argues that whatever a deviant is labelled depends on who has committed and observed the deviant act, when and where the act was committed and the negotiations that take place between the various 'social actors' involved. He suggests that powerless groups are more likely to be labelled than powerful groups. This is supported by research evidence that shows blacks are 5x more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites and 5x more likely to be labelled schizophrenic than whites by psychiatrists. 

4 of 10

The Consequences of Labelling

Becker also claims that the extent of deviance in society is dependent on the effects of labelling by powerful agencies of social control. He maintains that deviance can be amplified by the act of labelling. He argues that the labelled gain a master status e.g. mental patient, drug addict and that this status/label dominates and shapes how others see the individual. The deviant in effect becomes stigmatised. Eventually a self-fulfilling propheccy is set into motion and a career of deviance is possible. Becker suggests that once the deviant label is accepted, deviants may join or form deviant subcultures where their activities can be justified and supported. In this way deviance can become more frequent and often expanded into new areas.

Lemert supports Becker's ideas on the consequences of labelling. He maintains that primary deviance which has not been labelled has few consequences for the individual concerned. However, he claims that once deviance is labelled it becomes secondary and impacts on the individual e.g. in terms of gaining a master status and later developing a self fulfilling prophecy. 

5 of 10

Mass media and deviancy amplification

One agency of social control interactionists consider when looking at societal reactions to deviance is the media. It is argued that media amplify crime and deviance as they demonise deviants and create moral panics. Stan Cohhen has shown to be the case with powerless groups such as mods and rockers, football hooligans, single parents etc. The deviance amplification spiral is similar to Lemert's idea of secondary deviance. In both cases, the social reaction to the deviant act leads not to successful control of the deviance, but to further deviance, which in turn leads to greater reaction and so on. 

6 of 10

Labelling and criminal justice policy

Recent studies have shown how increases on the attempt to control and punish young offenders are having the opposite effect. For example, in the USA, Triplett (2000) notes an increasing tendency to see young offenders as evil and to be less tolerant of minor deviance. The criminal justice system has relabelled status offences such as truancy as more serious offences, resulting in much harsher sentences. As predicted by Lemert's secondary deviance theory this has resulted in an increase rather than a decrease in offending with levels of violence amongst the young increasing. De Haan (2000) notes a similar outcome in Holland as a result of the increasing stigmatisation of young offenders. 

7 of 10

Individual meanings of crime

Phenomenologists support the interactionist view in looking at crime and deviance under the 'microscope'. Phenomenologists focus on the individual motivations behind deviance and its episodic nature. Katz (1988) locates key meanings such as the search for excitement and establishing a reputation. Matza (1964) stresses how individuals drift in and out of deliquency as they employ techniques of neutralisation. 

8 of 10


  • Interactionist theories have served to generate a great deal of subsequent research into the effects of labelling. For example, Rist (1970) has shown how negative teacher expecations placed on the working class leads to underachievement and anti-school subcultures. This suggests that interactionist ideas have made a major contribution to the study of crime and deviance.
  • Interactionist theories have gained empirical support. Goffman (1968) has shown how the hospitalisation of the mentally ill leads to mortification, self-fulfilling prophecies and in some cases institution. This suggests ther is some validity  in the itneractionist ideas. 
  • Interactionist views have gained theoretical support. For example from the ideas of phenomenologists  and ethnomethodologists. This suggests that the ideas have wider theoretical appeal. 
9 of 10


  • Interactionist theories too readily dismiss official statistics on crime. Realists acccept that official statistics have imperfections and are subject to bias. However, they argue that they show the basic reality of crime and can be useful for generating explanations of crime and deviance. This suggests that interactionist response to official statistics is not adequate. 
  • Interactionist theories have been questioned on empirical grounds. Hirschi (1975) argues that it is debatable whether labelling by the criminal justice system leads to a career of deviance. He feels that other factors such as age are seen to be more important. This suggests the validity of interactionist ideas have to be questioned.
  • Whilst Marxists accept that labelling theory raises important questions, they argue that the theory has a weak view of power and social control. For example, the theory fails to explain why the nature and extent of crime and deviance is socially constructed. They also argue that interactionists fail to consider the wider structural origins of crime and deviance. This suggests that labelling theory only offers a partial view on crime and deviance.
10 of 10


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Crime and deviance resources »