Labelling Theory/ Crime 1.2


Understanding deviance: Reaction not Cause.

  • Labelling theory suggests that most people commit deviant acts but only some people are caught and stigmatised for it. 
  • A 2015 survey of 2000 people found that on average British people broke the 17 times per year, with 63% admitting speeding, 43% having sex in a public place, 33% admitting stealing.
  • Howard Becker (1963) puts it: Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules to an offender. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people label".
  • Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) have used labelling theory in their updating of Marxist criminology.
  • Labelling occurs when particular characteristics are ascribed to individuals on the basis of descriptions, names or labels. 
  • Symbolic interactionism argues that the social world consists of symbols that have culturally defined meaning to people and suggest appropriate ways of acting. Every time two or more people interact, they amend their behaviour on the basis of how they interpret the behaviour of the other people. A second element is a way that people develop images of themselves and how they should present themselves to other people.
  • Becker presented research done by Malinowski in which a youth killed himself because he had been publicly accused of incest. When Malinowski had first inquired about the case, the islanders on a Pacific island expressed their horror and disgust. But after investigation, it turned out that incest was not uncommon on the island. However, if an incestuous affair became too obvious and public, the islanders reacted with abuse.
  • Becker argues that:
    1. if someone breaks a rule, it does not necessarily follow that others will define it deviant
    2. Someone has to enforce the rules and draw attention to them
    3. If the person is successfully labelled, then consequences follow.
  • People respond differently to deviance or rule-breaking. John Kitsuse (1962) interviewed 75 gay students to elicit their responses to sexual advances from people of the same sex. The point of Kitsuse's work is that there was no agreed definition of what constituted a homosexual advance


  • Labelling theory fails to explain the causes of primary deviance. 
  • Labelling theory fails to distinguish between crimes with different degrees of seriousness and criminals who dod different amounts of harm
  • Labelling theory ignores the possibility that labelling could sometimes be based upon the seriousness of the offence and the frequency of the offending.
  • Wilkstrom (2012) found that 4% of young people were responsible for around half of all crime. 
  • A full understanding of crime does require study of both offending and societal reaction through labelling

The consequences of rule enforcement

  • Edwin Lemert (1972) who distinguished primary and secondary deviance.
  • Primary deviance is rule-breaking which is of little importance in itself
  • Secondary deviance is the consequence of the responses of others, which is significant
  • Lemert study of the coastal Inuits of Canada who had a problem of stammering. It was the anxiety that led to chronic stuttering. This chronic stuttering (secondary) is…


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