Despite its numerous critics, labelling theory has many supporters. Outline the main principles of this theoretical approach, discuss relevant supporting evidence and consider its major limitations.

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Crime, Deviance and Social Policy

SA 2770

Despite its numerous critics, labelling theory has many supporters.

Outline the main principles of this theoretical approach, discuss relevant supporting evidence and consider its major limitations.

        Labelling theory originated in the 20th century works of researchers such as Cooley “the looking-glass self” (1902), Tanenbaum (1938) and Lemert (1951). Their work was followed by Howard Becker’s “Outsiders” (1963) which is a key text from the past 50 years. Although the affecting influences of labelling theory are far ranging, Lemert is seen as the founder of the basic theory. In this essay I aim to give an in-depth description of the origins and history of labelling theory and explain its limitations as well as give examples of research studies and evidence both in support and in critique of the theory. Other issues discussed will include a discussion regarding labelling as an actual theory in reality and to generally evaluate the contributions of labelling theorists and the criticisms against them using the evidence available.

The symbolic interactionist approach to deviance, first formed in the Chicago school of Sociology and held by theorists such as Lemert and Becker, began to focus on the way in which negative labels get applied and on the consequences of the labelling process. Edwin Lemert, for example, made a distinction between ‘primary deviance’ and ‘secondary deviance’. Primary deviance is rule-breaking behaviour that is carried out by people who see themselves and are seen by others as generally ‘normal’. People break rules in all kinds of circumstances and for all kinds of reasons, due to this Lemert thought sociology could not possibly develop any general theories about primary deviance. But when a negative label gets applied so publicly and so powerfully that it becomes part of that individual's identity, this is what Lemert calls Secondary deviance. These dramatic negative labellings become turning points in that individual's identity; in future he or she is able

"to employ his or her deviant behaviour or a role based upon it as a means of defence, attack, or adjustment to the problems created the subsequent societal reaction."

(Lemert 1951)

Having been processed by the justice system and labelled a delinquent, or harassed by the police as a gang member, the individual takes on that label as a major aspect of his or her identity.

Labelling theorists have also been concerned to identify the conditions under which labelling takes place, which could be, among other things, as crime or mental illness or homosexuality. Howard Becker began to analyze these conditions in his book, Outsiders, written in the 1960s. In Becker's terminology, those who take the lead in getting a particular behaviour negatively labelled (or in getting a negative label removed) are called ‘moral entrepreneurs’. Moral entrepreneurs can be individuals; organizations (in Becker's analysis of the origins of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, it is officials of the Treasury Department and the FBI who are responsible for the legislation against marijuana); or social movements who set a new label for a certain behaviours (such as beatings of schoolchildren and family members which, until campaigners for human rights such as the NSPCC and the ‘battered women’s movement’ brought to the public eye as harsh – were seen as normal).

Labelling theorists have also examined the consequences of labelling in terms of people's later lives. At the extreme are those who argue that a whole ‘deviant career’ may well be the result of the misfortune of having been labelled. In other instances, as with Chambliss’ study, "The Saints and the Roughnecks," the labelling process is highlighted but he does not claim that the label is the whole explanation of people's later deviance.

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        Studying society’s reaction to crime and deviance has been ongoing for over a century under many different guises, including labelling theory, the interactionist perspective and the social constructionist perspective. These ‘societal reaction theories’ have a common denominator in that they see the sociological explanations of deviance as being products of social control rather than a biological or psychological reasons. These other theorists accept certain definitions of deviance and then set out to find out the causes of them. Labelling theorists however, focus on seeing deviance from the deviant’s perspective. They maintain that the way a person is stigmatised by society ...

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