Interactionist theories of crime

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Interactionist perspectives are micro theories, tending to look at particular groups in society, rather than society as a whole. 

According to Herbert Blumer, interactionism is based on three central views:

  • 'Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them' - Human behaviour isn't determined by social forces. People are self-conscious beings who choose what to do based on how they see things. 
  • 'The meaning of things is derived from the social interaction that one has with ones fellows' - Meanings are continually modified as people negotiate with each other.
  • People make society, not vice versa. 

Labelling Theory

Labelling theory derived from symbolic interactionism, and suggests that most people commit criminal and deviant acts, but only some people are caught and stigmatized for it. It's pointless trying to distinguish between deviants and non deviants - we should look to understand the reaction to and definition of deviance.

Taylor, Walton and Young have used labelling theory in their update of Marxist criminology. 

Becker gives an illustration of labelling theory, using a study done by Malinowski on a Pacific Island. 
Malinowski describes how a youth killed himself because he was publicly accused of incest. When Malinowski had first enquired about the case people expressed horror and disgust, but after further investigating he found that incest was actually common on the island and not looked down on. However if the incestuous action becomes too public then the islanders react with abuse.
Becker therefore argues:

  • Just because someone breaks a rule, doesn't mean others define it as deviant.
  • Someone has to enforce the rule - usually someone that has a particular interest in the issue (for the islanders it was the ex-lover of the girl involved in incest)
  • If the person is successfully labelled then consequences follow. (In this case, suicide).

Responding to and enforcing rules

People respond differently to deviance or rule breaking. E.g. Kitsuse interviewed some heterosexual students to ask for their response to advances from people of the same sex (when being gay was seen more negatively) and the responses ranged from complete tolerance to hatred. 

In Britain today, the British Crime Survey shows young Black males are more likely to be stopped for questioning and searching than other groups. This is a result of the polices belief that they are more likely to offend more.


Akers said labelling theorists presented deviants as the same as everyone else until someone labels them. He argues there must be some reason why a label is given to some groups but not others. 

The consequences of rule enforcement

Once labelled, various consequences occur. 

An example of this is given by Lemert who distinguished between primary and secondary deviance:

  • Primary: minor and common acts of deviance.
  • Secondary: the consequence of the responses of others.

An example of this is Lemert's study on Inuits in Canada who had a long problem of stuttering. Lemert suggested the problem was down to


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