Critically assess the contribution of labelling theory to an understanding of crime and deviance
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Critically assess the contribution of labelling theory to an understanding of crime and deviance Labelling theory is one theory suggested by sociologists as the explanation for crime and deviance. However, several different theories were in existence before the labelling theory came about. First of all there were the biological theories; these stated that the cause of a person acting in a deviant manner was due to a physiological characteristic or quality which they possessed. For example having a mesomorphic body type or having XYY chromosomes were believed to be causes of someone becoming a criminal. Biological theories however are widely criticised as they do not take into account several patterns in the distribution within society of crime and deviance, which statistics show are apparent. For example there is an obvious pattern between social status and criminal convictions; there are many more convictions in the working class communities. However, physiological characteristics are randomly distributed meaning that as many upper class individuals should commit crimes as the lower classes, the biological theories give no explanation to why this is the case. Another point for criticism is the difference in amount of convictions of the old and young, when in reality there are far more younger people commit crimes. If it was a biological factor causing someone to commit crimes this characteristic would remain with them the whole of their lives and therefore as many people would still be committing crimes when they were old as when they were young.
The act is only made deviant in a situation when society views it as inappropriate; the act itself is not illegal. Edwin M. Lemert emphasises, like Becker, the significance of society and its reaction to deviant behaviour. He believes that there are two separate types of deviance, Primary and Secondary. Primary deviation consists of deviant acts being carried out before the individual is publicly labelled as a delinquent. Secondary deviation is when a person commits a deviant act as a response to society's reaction to and labelling of them. He believes that society's reaction can be named as the major cause of deviance, claiming that agents of social control are to blame for deviance rather than the deviant. Emphasising this point of secondary deviation is Lemert's study 'Stuttering among the North Pacific Coastal Indians'. The North Pacific coastal Indians live a ceremonial life of singing, dancing and speechmaking. Right from a young age children are involved in the ceremonies and their parents stress the importance of a flawless performance. There is a particularly high sensitivity to any speech defect, and if one becomes apparent during their speech shame is brought upon the child and their parents. Stuttering is not very common amongst North American Indians many tribes don't even have a word for it in their language though it does sometimes occur. Lemert believes however that stuttering is in fact caused by societal reaction, by this he means that the child and parents anxiety over a possible speech impediment actually causes them.
This therefore maintains those at the bottom of the social structure at the bottom purely due to the stereotypical view the police possess of them. The labelling theory however does have its faults. In many cases no explanation is given for the actual deviant act which occurs. For example in the case of Lemert, he states that there is 'Primary deviation' which he states is not caused by society giving the delinquent a label but he doesn't go on to say what the actual reason for the deviancy is. He simply says "There are probably any number of causes of primary deviation and it is largely a fruitless exercise to inquire into them". He doesn't bother trying to explain the cause of this deviance he just says there is no point in doing so. Cicourel also lacks some explanation in a certain aspect of his theory. He states that the police arrest people on the basis of their view of the typical delinquent, however, he does not explain where they acquired this view of the stereotype of a criminal. They must have some reasoning behind this image but no thought is given to where it stemmed from. Also the labelling theory only deals with minor crimes and deviant acts such as stuttering and paranoia. It doe not even attempt to explain major crimes such as murder and robbery etc. it seems to choose to ignore these crimes completely, when these are probably the more important ones to make sense of. Lorna Suckling
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