labelling theory

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  • Created by: Chloe
  • Created on: 02-01-15 16:33

Labelling Theory: Believe that most people commit deviant and criminal acts but only some are caught and stigmatised for it. Instead of searching for the differences between deviants and non-deviants, we should be looking at the reaction to and definition of deviance. 

Becker (1963) "deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender"

  • Used the findings of Malinowski when developing his ideas. Malinowski studied inhabitants of a pacific island where a youth killed himself after he had been publically accused of incest. All the islanders expressed disgust and horror at the idea of incest but he discovered it was actually very common and acceptable if kept discreet.
  • Becker used this to argue the following:
  1. Just because someone breaks a rule does not necessarily mean that it will be defined as deviant
  2. Someone has to enforce the rules or at least draw attention to them - they normally have a vested interest in the situation
  3. If the person is successfully labeled then consequences follow

Most theories assume that once a person has committed a deviant or criminal act, the response to it will be uniform. However this is not the case as people respond differently to deviance or rule breaking. In Britain, British Crime Survey statistics show that young black males are more likely to be stopped and searched than any other group as they are believed to offend the most - they are the subjects of 'routine suspicion'.

Lemert (1972):  distinguished between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the rule breaking while secondary deviance is the consequence of the responses of others. The person labelled as deviant will come to see themselves as being bad. 

Becker uses the term master status to describe how once a label has been successfully applied, all other qualities that the person may possess become unimportant. However the process of being labelled is open to negotiation where some groups or individuals are able to reject their label.

Deviant career: the various stages that a person passes through on their way to being seen as, and seeing themselves as, deviant.

Moral entrepreneurs:person or group which tries to create or enforce a rule.

  • Becker…


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