Topic 2- Interactionism and labelling theory

  • Created by: mya_xoxo
  • Created on: 12-02-19 11:58

Interactionism and labelling theory

The social construction of crime

Labelling theorists are interested in how and why certain acts come to be defined or labelled as criminal in the first place. They argue that no act is inherently criminal or deviant in itself, in all situations and at all times. In other words it isn’t the nature of the act that makes it deviant it is society’s reaction to the act.

For Howard Becker being deviant is simply someone whom the label has successfully been applied to and deviant behaviour is simply behaviour that people label. This leads labelling theorists to look at why rules and laws get made. They are particularly interested in the role of what Becker calls moral entrepreneurs. These are people who lead a moral ‘crusade’ to change the law. However Becker argues that this new law has two effects;

  • The creation of a new group of outsiders- outlaws or deviants who break the new rule
  • The creation or expansion of social control agency to enforce the rule and impose labels on offenders  

For example Platt argues that the idea of juvenile delinquency was originally created as a campaign by upper-class moral entrepreneurs and aimed at protecting young people at risk. It enabled the state to extend its powers beyond criminal offences involving the young. Becker notes that social control agencies themselves also campaign for changes in the law to increase their own power.

Not everyone who commits an offence is punished for it, this may be due to their interactions with agencies of social control, their appearance or background or the situation and circumstances of the offence. This leads labelling theorists to look at how laws are applied and enforced. Their studies show that agencies of social control are more likely to label certain groups of people as deviant or criminal. For example Piliavin and Briar found that police decisions to arrest a youth were mainly based on physical cues (such as manner and dress) from which they made judgements on youth character. Decisions were also influenced by the suspect’s gender, class and ethnicity as well as the time and place of the incident.

Cicourel: the negotiation of justice

Officer’s decisions to arrest are influenced by their stereotypes about offenders. Cicourel found that officer typification led to them to concentrate on certain types of individuals. For example an officer bias being on the working-class may lead to their being more patrol of working-class areas than richer areas. This doesn’t mean that more crime is occurring it just means that there are more officers in that area to catch it. He also looks at typification with other agents of control, for example probation officers.

Topic versus resource

Cicourels study has implications for the use we make of official crime statistics recorded by police. He argues that these statistics do not give a valid picture of the patterns of crime and cannot be used as a resource. This sheds light on…


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