Critically evaluate the contribution that the Labelling theory has made to our understanding of the nature of Crime and Deviance.

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Critically evaluate the contribution that the Labelling theory has made to our understanding of the nature of Crime and Deviance.

Most approaches to the understanding of crime and deviance, (except Marxism) accept there is a difference between those who offend and those who don’t. However, one group of sociologists, influenced by symbolic interactionism, have questioned this approach, arguing that the approach is mistaken in the assumption that lawbreakers are different from the law-abiding. The Labelling theory is greatly influenced by symbolic interactionism and instead suggests that most people commit deviant or criminal acts, but only some people are caught and stigmatised for it. This approach to the understanding of crime and deviance is an opinion dividing one, facing many criticisms. It is unique in that, unlike other theories on crime and deviance, it argues that it is pointless trying to search for the differences between deviants and non-deviants and instead, suggests the stress should be upon understanding the reaction to, and definition of, deviance rather than on the causes of the initial act.

Howard Becker made, arguably, one of the most important contributions to understanding crime and deviance through the development of labelling theory. Becker states that no act is criminal or deviant until it has been labelled as such by others, or “deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label”. The criminal or deviant acts itself is not as important in itself as the social reaction to that act is. Becker therefore agrees with the idea that crime and deviance are socially constructed. Becker’ studies show that being labelled as a deviant can have important consequences for a person’s identity. If the label of criminal or deviant is successfully applied, the negative label becomes a master status, which cancels out the other statuses that an individual has. It can result in excluding an individual from different social activities, such as work and other mainstream society; therefore, deviants are left to find support with others in similar situations. This is likely to reinforce a deviant lifestyle, leading to a development of further deviant acts and even to a deviant career. This could ultimately lead to the creation of deviant sub-cultures. However, there have been many fundamental criticism of Howard Becker’s theory. Most prominent being that it fails to explain why people commit crimes and completely neglects power and social structure and therefore cannot explain why certain types of people are regularly and repeatedly identified as criminal or deviant, although labelling theorists claim to provide a voice for those who are labelled as deviant and are’ outsiders’ or the ‘underdog’.

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Furthermore, working with Malinowski, Becker’s ‘The Outsiders’ provides a very clear illustration of the labelling theory applied to the idea of crime and deviance. Malinowski describes how a youth killed himself when he had become publically accused of incest. Malinowski first inquired about the case, and found that the Islanders, of the home belonging to the boy, reacted with horror and disgust of the boys’ offence. However, on further investigation, Malinowski found that incest was not uncommon on the island and as long as it was kept discreet, was not a problem. He found that if an incestuous affair ...

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