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Assess the view that crime and deviance is the result of labelling, the media and public opinion

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Charlie Thompson

Assess the view that crime and deviance is the result of labelling, the media and public opinion

Crime and deviance happens in all cultures in the world and there are many reasons too why people turn to crime or deviance. This essay is going to be about determining if crime is the result of labelling or other social explanations. They are discussed in the sociology of deviance because they are trying to find why people commit crimes from two perspectives, Interactionist where they are walking in the shoes of the person, or a structuralist’s approach where they are having a bird’s eye view of life. There are differences between the term crime and deviance.  Crime is the idea that any action which is considered to break the rules of society with an example being murder. On the other hand a deviant act is a much broader line defined as behaviour which moves away from conventional norms and values. However, some things like murder and rape are both considered criminal and deviant, however crime and deviance is relative changing in relation to time, place and culture. This means that crime and deviance is socially constructed for example created and defined by the people of that society and not universal. Discussed in this essay will be the impact that labelling can cause on people and to determine if this can cause people to deviate from social norms. One theorists who will be discussed who does believe that crime and deviance is caused by labelling is Howard Becker. This interactionist believes that doing something in society isn’t wrong or bad, however it is the label we attach to it that has meaning. One believes that there is a labelling process in society that causes the person to accept this label, and to start acting in accordance to it. Discussed also will be the theories that believes that it is not just labelling that can cause crime and deviance, but there are also social explanations to crime. Robert Merton believes that people who can’t achieve high success in life (money) people will try and achieve this illegally. Also discussed is the subcultural strain theory from Albert Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, and Walter Miller. Cohen believes that crime is cause by the lower class resolving the frustration of a lack of opportunity by doing non-utilitarian crime. Cloward and Ohlin believe that there is a different type of crime, depending on the area that they live in. Walter Miller believe that crime is caused by the low skilled labour and dead end jobs that leads to the person finding excitement and thrills outside the work place by deviant means. Becker’s idea that people that are labelled turn to crime is a good idea, however, there are more social influences that will affect crime which is why the strain theories are good in determining crime levels such as frustration in not having good living conditions due to money or lifestyle.

Interactionists are different to structuralists in different ways. Structuralists such as Functionalists, Marxists and subcultural theories all believe that it is the structures of society that influence peoples behaviour. This is called a macro approach which is where institutions in society such as education, politics and religion affect society and the way that people live their lives. So they believe that people commit crime is because society is structured in a way which forces them to do so. Interactionists in the other hand focus on the interaction between people and society. They tend to use a micro approach to society by intending to understanding a person’s behaviour by walking in their shoes and seeing how they see the world. An example of Interactionists is labelling theorists. Rather that simply taking the definition of crime for granted, labelling theorists are interested in how and why certain acts come to be defined or labelled as criminal in the first place.

Howard Becker is an example of a labelling theorist who believes that a deviant is simply someone to whom the label has been successfully applied, and deviant behaviour is simply behaviour that people so label. Becker said ‘Social groups create deviance by creating the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders.’ So Becker is saying that society creates the rules, deviant activity is not intrinsically different to any other, it just steps outside the boundaries of social acceptance. An example would be a deviant drug taker injecting him self with heroin, and law abiding man administering insulin for his diabetes. Becker says that neither of these are deviant, due to the fact that the act of injecting one selves isn’t morally good or bad; it’s the label we attach to it that has meaning.  However, there are some negative points of Becker’s idea that something is wrong by the content. It implies that without labelling, deviance would not exist. This leads to the strange conclusion that someone who commits a crime but is not labelled has not deviated. It also implies that deviants are unaware that they are deviant until labelled. Yet most are well aware that they are going against social norms.

As social beings, our identity is largely to do with how others see us. If people see us negatively this could affect the way in which we behave, for example a person is labelled as a rapist.. This is the idea of the labelling process. The first of the parts is where a label is attached by courts, police or newspaper be it a racist, murderer or any other actions labelled a crime. This label sticks and people treat the person differently even if it isn’t true. This label then becomes a master status and overrides other labels as friend, neighbour brother etc. Penultimately, the labelled person accepts the label, even if it is not true, their self conception is largely made up of what other people think. Finally there is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is where the label becomes deeply accepted the individual may display signs of deviant activity connected with the label seeing as people believe they are a deviant anyway. This completes the process as this confirms the label in the eyes of others. The labelling process can be criticised nonetheless. It tends to be deterministic, implying that once someone is labelled, a deviant career is inevitable. This is not always the case with people being able to change a deviant label and change their lives around.

This leads labelling theorists to look at how and 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 in the belief that it will benefit those to whom it applied. However, Becker argues that this new law invariably has two effects. It creates a new group of ‘outsiders’- outlaws or deviants who break the new rule, and creates or expands a social control agency (such as the police) to enforce the rule and impose labels on offenders. An example is in the Victorian times where the term ‘juvenile’ came into play. This was a result of a campaign by upper-class Victorian moral entrepreneurs who used the word ‘juvenile’ to protect young people at risk.  This established juveniles as a separate category of offender within the courts, and it enabled the state to extend its powers beyond criminal offences involving the young, in so-called ‘status offences’ such as truancy. This shows that the labelling in society can cause a dispersion of groups such as the juveniles that caused different sanctions in the court room.

The labelling theory shows that the law is not a fixed set of rules to be taken for granted, but something whose construction we need to explain. It shows that the law is often enforced in discriminatory ways and that crime statistics are more of a record of the activities of control agents to control deviance can backfire and create more deviance, not less.  However, it was the first theory to recognise the role of power in creating deviance, but it fails to analyse the source of this power. For example, Marxists argue that it fails to examine the links between the labelling process and capitalism. As a result, it focuses on ‘middle range officials’ such as policemen who apply the labels, rather than on capitalist class who make the rules in the first place. It also fails to explain the origin of the labels or why they are applied to certain groups, such as the working class.

One term, the deviance amplification spiral is a term which is the process in which the attempt too control deviance leads to an increase in the level of deviance. This leads to greater attempts to control it and, in turn, this produces yet higher levels of deviance. More and more control produces more and more deviance, in an escalating spiral or snowballing feedback process, as in the case of the hippies described by Young. One examined hippy marijuana users in Notting Hill. Initially drugs were peripheral to the hippies lifestyle. However persecution and labelling by the control force (police) led the hippies to increasingly to see them selves as outsiders. This was like what Becker said with the groups of outsiders being the hippies and the control force being the police. This made the hippies retreat into closed groups where they began to develop a deviant subculture, wearing longer hair and more ‘way out clothes’. This labelling of the hippies shows that those being labelled did turn to crime and deviance by going against society’s norms and values with the hair style, the way they dress and the drug taking.

These hippies were considered to have society in a moral panic. This is defined as events where people or groups are defined as a threat to social order.  One other example of a moral panic can be explained by Stanley Cohen in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’, which is a study of the societal reaction to the ‘mods and rockers’ disturbances involving groups of youths. One said that youth culture is often demonised by the media and observed how newspapers tend to sensationalise and exaggerate the behaviour of groups of young people. His study described how fights between two sets of youths in 1964 labelled Mods and Rockers produced a moral panic, when a group of people are seen as a threat to social order. Cohen says that Mods and Rockers were made out to be modern day folk devils. There are consequences of these labels being made to people. Studies indicate that those who are stopped, searched, questioned, arrested charged and prosecuted are disproportionately young men who are lower class, unemployed and from generally discriminated ethnic minorities. In 2007/08 statistics show you are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are a young black male. Like the mods and rockers, labelling theorists say this is due to the perceptions held by the police of the ‘typical criminal’. This idea of one type of criminal will cause the ‘outsiders’ to behave in a unlikeable fashion to try and get the same treatment which shows that labelling can cause crime and deviance. However, this implies that without labelling, deviance would not exist. This leads to the strange conclusion that someone who commits a crime but is not labelled has not deviated. It also implies that deviants are unaware that they are deviant until labelled. Yet most are well aware that they are going against social norms.

Instead of crime and deviance being caused as the results of labelling, but strain theories is also a reason which is where people engage in deviant behaviour when they are unable to achieve socially approved goals by legitimate means. Robert Merton in his book called ‘social structure and anomie’ provided a social explanation for crime rather than biological. America puts a high importance on success via money which he calls the ‘American Dream’. Most people do this via legitimate (legal) means by achieving success through skills and qualifications. People who cant achieve the dream legitimately will do it illegitimately (illegally). He calls this the ‘strain to anomie’. This strain produces frustration which creates a pressure to deviate, and Merton thought of ways to adapt or respond to the strain. Most of America conforms to the rules and are not criminal or deviants but the criminals innovate in order to do the crime. This is the lower and ethnic minorities that are more likely to commit criminal acts because of their position in the social structure. There are three groups that adapt to the strain but deviate from the social norms and values. These are ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. However, it can be argued that why isn’t all lower class people that turn too crime and there can be other influences that Merton did no write about such as social differentiation like gender and sexuality. The good thing about this explanation is that it offers a social explanation for crime and for working class crime in particular and seems to explain utilitarian crime (money) and those of the lower classes who have a lack of legitimate opportunity. However all of the crime explained by Merton is monetary gain but does not focus on utilitarian crime such as vandalism and gang warfare. This theory is different to the interactionist idea of crime and deviance, however, Merton only had information about America so it cannot generalise to the whole of the population. Interactionist labelling also has examples in modern society of labelling causing crime such as the mods and rockers, however Merton’s only example is the Wall Street crash in 1929, which was nearly a century ago.

There are also some subcultural strain theories such as Albert Cohen. He says that there are two groups in society, mainstream and subculture. The mainstream is in consensus with society and has no problem. The majority of working class accept these mainstream goals and live well in society. However, when they are unable to be successful by legitimate means due to a lack of opportunity (education) this creates status frustration. They resolve this by rejecting mainstream societies values and creating their own where they can be successful. These crimes are non-utilitarian such as vandalism, joyriding to win status and more. They would not take money due to the fact that mainstream society wants money in life. This agrees with Merton’s views because it agrees crime is a working class phenomenon however it disagrees with him due to the fact that Cohen believes the crime is done in groups and for no monetary values but not achieved individually. Cohen though does not explain utilitarian approach to crime but just non-utilitarian. One also believes that working-class boys start off sharing middle class success goals, only to reject these when they fail. He ignores the possibility that they didn’t share these goals in the first place and so never saw themselves as failures. This is similar to the interactionist views of labelling due to the fact that this crime is caused by a new subculture being formed. However, the interactionist views is vague on the crimes that are committed and who does them. Albert Cohen grouped and explained what a certain group done that was deviant in society, for example lower class would do wrongdoings such as vandalism.

Like Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin say crime is also cause by this subcultural strain theory which is a result of a strain between a person and society. Their theory of ‘opportunity structures’ explains what type of crime is available in the area that the certain delinquent lives. Just like Merton and Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin believes that deviance stems from a lack of opportunity to succeed in mainstream society. The pair of sociologists believed there were three subcultures within society which are determined where they live. The criminal subculture is where an adult criminal role model tech them the tricks of the trade. This is a structural criminal hierarchy which gives illegitimate means to success. Modern examples of this happening are groups such as the mafia and The Krays.  The second subculture is the conflict which is where there is an area with high population turnover and low social cohesion. These places often have a lack of illegitimate opportunity which leads to the person trying to gain status through gang violence. The third and final subculture is the retreatist one with members thought too be double failures. These people failed to achieve success in mainstream society and other subcultures so turn within themselves to drugs and alcohol. While they agree with Cohen that delinquent subcultures are the source of much deviance, unlike Cohen they provide an explanation for different types of working-class deviance in terms of different subcultures. The pair also describes both non and utilitarian crime unlike the other three theories that just picked one of them to point the finger at. This makes the theory credible and more of a better example of why people turn to crime than the interactionist labelling example. Even though they are similar and say that groups are made, the labelling theorist views fails to explain why people commit crime in the first place before they are labelled. However the pair say that it can be caused by the area that they live which is less vague.

Unlike Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, Walter Miller believes that there is no strain in society between the working class and higher class that cause crime and deviance. Miller believes that everyone has their own focal concerns (goals). Lower class people that are more likely to be in low skilled labour and dead end jobs leads to them trying to find excitement and thrills outside the work place. Growing up on the streets means they are concerned with maintaining toughness and being street-smart. The deviant activity that Miller believes they are like is conning and outwitting others by hustling them, joyriding, vandalism and fighting. One believes that certain groups don’t accept mainstream values so they wouldn’t be frustrated or feel any strain but each subculture would have its own focal concerns which would lead to different deviant activities. Miller differs from Cloward and Ohlin due to oneself agreeing deviance is widespread in the lower class, however he argues that this arises out of an attempt to achieve their own goals, not mainstream ones (focal concerns). So Miller has got similar views to why people deviate in society that Cohen saying that it is the individual that chooses to deviate or not. The labelling theory unlike Millers theory fails to analyse the source of this power to deviate. This is why Miller’s theory is stronger due to the fact that he has examples of why people would want to be deviant.

David Matza claimed that delinquents are similar to everyone else in their values and voice similar feelings of outrage about crime in general as the majority of society. For example the delinquents often express ‘regret and remorse’, but far from being delinquent, this group is casually are immersed in a pattern of illegal activity. They ‘drift into deviant activities’, for example there is a lot of spontaneity and impulsiveness in deviant actions. Matza believes that we all hold two levels of values which are conventional and subterranean. Conventional values are the normal roles that people have such as being a father or being in a occupation of some sort. And the subterranean values are of sexuality, greed and aggressiveness. These are however, generally controlled, but we all hold them, and we all do them. Matza suggests that delinquents are simply more likely than most of us to behave according to subterranean values in inappropriate situations. Matza believed that the delinquents deviated from the norms of society by using techniques of neutralisation which is where they suggest ways to justify their own crimes as exceptions to the rules, for example ‘ I did something that was wrong, but…’. Thus they are able to convince themselves that the law does not apply to them. Matza only describes young deviants in society so it is not as strong an example as the Interactionist. The labelling theory also explains the examples of delinquents in society such as mods and rockers unlike Matza who has no real life proof that delinquents are cause by a drift into delinquency.

Discussed in this essay, is Becker’s idea that a person can act into accordance to the way that the person is labelled. So one said that no act is bad in life, but people rely on the context to see if it is right and wrong. One other interactionist discussed is Stanley Cohen who studied the Mods and Rockers who were labelled as bad for society from the papers who distorted acts of crime which created a moral panic. The strain theories who disagree that labelling was the cause of crime and deviance were Merton, Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin and Matza. Merton believed that people engage in deviant behaviour when they are unable to achieve socially approved goals. The subcultural strain theory of Albert Cohen believes that people are frustrated because they want too be successful but the lack the qualifications and skills to do so turn to non-utilitarian crimes. Cloward and Ohlin though theorised that people commit there crimes differently depending on the area they live in. The pair named three types of groups deviants are in, Criminal Subcultures, Conflict and retreatist. The Final subcultural theory is form Walter Miller who believes that there is no strain in society, but each social class has different focal concerns which lead to criminal activities. David Matza also believed that you delinquents spontaneously and impulsively drift into deviant activities. In conclusion, there are many reasons why there is crime and deviance, but these are more likely going to be down to social explanations than from labelling due to the fact that it is determined by who you are with when doing the crime and the whereabouts which can affect the crime.    

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