TOPIC 4: Labelling theory

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Howard Becker

  • 'Master status' = takes precedence over all other labels
  • Those with master label = treated negatively --> leads to development of negative self-image
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy occurs = master label becomes internalised
  • Deviant career = person accepts master label
  • Labelled as criminal = further rejection by society, leads to further crime

The Outsiders

  • Just because someone breaks rule does not necessarily follow that others will define it as deviant
  • Someone has to enforce rules/draw attention to them - people usually have vested interest in issue
  • If person is successfully labelled, consequences will follow
  • Malinowski = islanders expressed horror of youth killing himself after being publicly accused of incest --> incest not uncommon on island because not too obvious and public, reacted with abuse/offenders ostracised when made public
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Responding to and enforcing rules

  • Primary deviance = initial rule breaking, no consequence --> e.g. stealing stationery from company person works for
  • Secondary deviance = e.g. someone draws attention to theft, person loses job, commits more thefts --> can lead to deviancy amplification
  • Person labelled as 'deviant' eventually sees themselves as bad
  • Once label has been successfully applied, all other qualities become unimportant
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Creating rules

  • Marxists = rules made by ruling classes, protects ruling class interests
  • Functionalists = rules are essential for maintenance of social order, reflect views of majority
  • Labelling theorists = laws are reflection of activities of 'moral entrepreneurs' --> actively seek to create and enforce laws, laws are truly to benefit of society
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The process of labelling

Issues occur

  • Media coverage dependent on: newsworthiness/power of those seeking media coverage

Moral panic

  • Dependent upon: frequency/context/reflexivity/difficulty/rebound

Public response

  • Process of sensitisation may occur --> dependent upon how news is 'processed'/reaffirmed by personal experience

Policy responses

  • Punitive 'crackdown'
  • Welfare measure
  • Scapegoating

Deviant responses

  • Increases deviant activity/change to another activity/decreases activity
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Deviancy amplification

  • Rule/law can have effect of increasing deviant behaviour when enforced

Jack Young (1971):

  • 'Hippie' marijuana users in Notting Hill
  • Only minor/insignificant event for majority --> 'closed ranks' because of negative way police treated them
  • Increasingly rejected by mainstream society = difficult to enter 'normal' society
  • Accepted 'hippie drug user' master label = developed deviant career in buying/selling of drugs
  • Police activity led to drug use being 'driven underground' --> increased price
  • Professional criminals attracted to business = brought violence/dilution of drugs with dangerous subs
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Moral panics

Cohen (1972):

  • Effect of media coverage = make young people catagorise themselves as mods/rockers
  • Helped to create violence that took place between them --> confirmed them as troublemakers in eyes of public


  • McRobbie and Thornton (1995) = Cohen's theory is outdated:
    - Frequency = increasing number of moral panics --> less impact/more inclined to be dismissive
    - Context = society is more diverse --> no longer one unified response
    - Reflexivity = many groups create moral panics for own benefit --> media knows this, do not wish to start moral panic
    - Difficulty = far less clear today what is unambiguously 'bad' --> society is too fragmented/culturally pluralistic
    - Rebound = more wary about starting moral panics as possibility of rebound 
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Evaluation of labelling theory

  • Social action theorists accused of having too much sympathy for criminals = deterministic --> imply once you have been labelled, deviant career is inevitable
  • Marxists accuse them of focusing too much on working class
  • Labelling theory does not explain why some people are labelled
  • Concept is outdated
  • Akers (1967) = criticised labelling theorists for presenting deviants as perfectly normal/no different from anyone else --> major fault, some behaviours are inherently wrong, such acts only wrong when they are labelled as such
  • Marxists = criticise idea that all laws made by moral entrepreneurs --> law making occurs within capitalist framework, labelling theory does not have coherent theory of power
  • Does not explain why some groups have more power
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