Labelling Theories' Contribution to the Sociological Understanding of Crime and Deviance
Becker is the main sociologist studying labelling theory on deviance,
he argues that 'social groups create deviance by making the rules
whose infraction constitutes deviance.' Meaning acts only become
deviant when observers perceive it and define it as deviant. An
example of this would be the act of nudity, it is accepted in the
bedroom between husband and wife or on a nudist camp, but when a
stranger was to enter the bedroom, or someone was to streak across a
sporting event, others would usually see this as deviant, and this
deviancy would become a label on the individual.
Several factors affect what the audience would perceive as deviant,
such things as, who commits the act; when and where it is committed;
who observes the act; and negotiations between those in the act.
It is often those who respond to the acts who label the act deviant
rather than the behaviour of the individual. To stress this, Becker
uses the example of a brawl between youngsters, in a working-class
area police would see the act as sign of delinquency whereas if it was
to occur in a wealthy neighbourhood it would just be classed as
youthful high spirits.
Because Becker concentrates on the interaction between the potential
deviant and the agents of social control (observers) he is following
the interactionist perspective.
Due to the fact that individuals usually find their self-concepts
through the responses of others, it is likely according to Becker,
that after the individual has been labelled as deviant, they progress
down the path of a 'deviant career' and it becomes hard for the
deviant to shake off the deviant label as others see it as a master
status for the individual. Which in turn could turn into a
self-fulfilling prophecy because of being identified with the label
and it becomes controlling.
Once these steps have occurred, what Becker describes as 'the deviant
career' is completed when the individual joins an organised deviant
group and thus accepting their identity of being deviant.
However, this is not by any means inevitable and some of those who
started out as convicts or drug addicts can become 'straight' and get
jobs or quit their habits.
When Becker identified that he took a 'sequential' approach he means
how he explains deviance and at any stage in the sequence of his
explanation it is possible that the deviant will re-enter conventional
Lemmert also uses the interactionist perspective in his view of
labelling, outlining primary and secondary deviance, primary being the
act before it is publicly labelled and secondary being the response of
the individual or 'deviant' to the reactions of others in society. But
he sees the agents of social control to blame for deviance...