Crime and Deviance
Labelling theory refers to the ability to attach a label to a person or group of people and in so doing the label becomes more important than the individual. The label becomes the dominant form of identify and takes on ‘Master Status’ so that the person can no longer be seen other than through the lens of the label. Words, just like labels, are containers of meaning. In this case, the label and the meaning attached to it becomes all that the person is rather than a temporary feature of something that they have done or a way that they have behaved.
"Words [or labels], like little buckets, are assumed to pick up their loads of meaning in one person's mind, carry them ...view middle of the document...
Primary Deviance refers to an individual committing any norm-violating behaviour, usually without personal or social consequences. Secondary Deviation is deviant behaviour generated when one is placed in a deviant social role as a result of negative social reaction – having been processed and labelled as deviant. Once labelled, the individual incorporates this deviant identity into himself and is likely to commit further deviance – a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
For example, the idea of labelling has been applied in the sociology of education, where the activities of teachers in labelling certain students as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’ have been argued to be one of the most important factors in the educational achievement and criminal future of individuals. The idea is that, if teachers consistently apply a rule to a student – for example ‘trouble-maker’ – then the student will come to believe that this is true and adopt the label as a ‘master status’. The student will then begin to act in ways that conform to the master status, thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We can see how Symbolic Interactionist’s primary concern – the actor’s interpretation of the response of others – segues into labelling. Additionally, labelling has tenuous connections to Conflict Theory as far as considering those at the top of the class structure (those that make the rules), and those at the bottom of the class structures (those who break rules and are powerless) who are more likely to be labelled. At one time, labelling even denounced social control agencies and accused them of furthering delinquency.
Left realists such as Young and Lea have criticised labelling theory because certain powerless groups such as blacks do commit more street crime. They argue that we need to understand how certain groups interpret their structural position in society, e.g. how young blacks interpret institutionalised racism as well as labelling by the agents of social control. Young and Lea suggest that young blacks may feel relatively deprived in relation to young whites and consequently marginalised. They may respond by turning to both legitimate and illegitimate subcultures. Young and Lea therefore acknowledge the influence of labelling theory and adapt it to account for the reality of inner-city crime.
The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy has also come under attack. The argument is that acting in accordance with a label is just one of several outcomes that might come about. An equally likely reaction by an individual to being labelled ‘trouble-maker’ is to try and show the teacher who has done the labelling that he/she is wrong. This is known as the self-negating prophecy. Another reaction might be to ignore the label completely, because it is unimportant to the individual so labelled. The theory is thus seen as deterministic – it assumes that once a person has been labelled, their deviance will inevitably become worse, and they have no option but to get more and...