As its name suggests, interactionism is concerned with interaction, which means action between individuals. The interactionist perspective seeks to understand this process. Interactionists place particular emphasis on the idea of the self. They suggest that individuals develop a 'self-concept', a picture of themselves, which has lan important influence on their actions. A 'self-concept' develops from interaction processes, since it is in a large part a reflection of others towards the individual; hence the term 'looking glass self 'coined by Charles Cooley.2 He posed the idea that actors tend to act in terms of their self-concept. Thus if they are consistently defined as disreputable, servile or arrogant, they will tend to see themselves in this light and act accordingly. Like functionalists, the interactionists employ the concept of role, but they adopt a somewhat different perspective. Functionalists imply that roles are provided by the social system, and individuals enact their roles as if they were reading off a script that contains explicit directions for their behaviour. Interactionists' argue that roles are often unclear, ambiguous and vague. This lack of clarity provides the actors with considerable room for negotiation and improvisation. One can briefly summarise that interaction focuses on the processes of relations in particular contexts, which means they are not fixed but constructed and negotiated in interaction situations.
Societal deviance is marked by a majority consensus about the identification of deviant acts and the appropriateness of the label. The process by which new situational acts not previously defined as deviant become so defined is indicative, of the relativistic aspects of deviance. Plummer (1979) sees labelling theory as the closest to the interactional approach in that they both portray 'another world at odds with the absolutism of structuralism' (pg 94) despite at times living with ambiguity and contradictions it does continue to provide an alternative vision of the world his assertion is 'nothing is deviant but naming it makes it so' (pg 96). When looking at the causes of deviance one simply cannot ignore the societal reaction. Like Becker, Edwin.M.Lemert (1972)3 accentuated the importance of societal reaction- the reaction of others to the deviant. Lemert distinguished between primary and secondary deviation. Primary deviation consists of deviant acts before they are publicly labelled; Lemert suggested that the searches for the causes of primary deviation are fruitless for two reasons. Firstly that, samples of deviants are based upon those who have been labelled and are therefore unrepresentative and secondly many so-called deviant acts may be so widespread as to be normal in statistical terms, for example most males at some point will commit a homosexual act, or engage in delinquent activities. Secondary deviation is the response of the individual or the group to societal reaction. Lemert argued that studies of deviance should focus on secondary deviation, which has major implications for the individual's self-concept; status in the community and future actions, in comparison primary deviation has little significance. Thus, Lemert concluded that societal reaction is the major cause of deviance and therefore reserves the traditional view that the blame for deviance lies with the agents of social control rather than the deviant. Functionalist such as Taylor, Walton and Young (1973)4 have argued that it is wrong to assume that primary deviance will not affect someone's self-concept. Even if people keep their deviance a secret, they know they are capable of breaking the law and this could well affect both their opinion of themselves and their later actions.
When examining the possible effects upon the individual after being publically labelled Becker came to the conclusion that the particular label defines an individual as a specific person and therefore creates the idea of a 'master status' in the sense that it colours all other statuses possessed by the person. For example if someone is labelled by society as a criminal this label would override other 'roles' that, that person has, like statuses such as being a parent, worker or friend. This is due to the fact society doesn't deem a criminal to have anything but negative characteristics.
Since individuals' self concepts rely largely from the perception of others, they will tend to see themselves in terms of the label. This often produces a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' whereby the deviant identification becomes the controlling one. Becker (1963) outlined a number of stages in this process. Firstly that the individual is overtly
Labelled as deviant, this may then encourage further deviance for example drug addicts may turn to crime to sustain their addiction. Also that the official treatment of deviance may have similar effects, like ex-convicts may find it hard regain employment after their incarceration and therefore are 'forced' to return to crime for their livelihood. This can often result in the completion of the 'deviant career', when an individual joins an organized deviant group. In this context they start to conform to this group as form of support network and begin to increasingly accept their deviant activity. Within this group a deviant subculture starts to emerge, which usually includes norms and values that justify their deviant identities and acts. A major criticism of this approach is that it is too deterministic in that it naturally assumes that once a person has been labelled their level of deviance will inevitably become worse. The labelled person has no option but to get more and more involved. Therefore as claimed by Gouldner (1975)5 is portrayed as passive and unable to control their own future but in reality if individuals can chose to take part in deviance they can also maintain control over whether they ignore the label and refrain from committing further deviant acts.
Labelling and Marxist scholars have traditionally maintained an uneasy alliance with one another as part of a response to the conflictual politics of the time. Both presented themselves as alternatives to the functionalist theory and each eventually adopted a stance of empathy or solidarity with their subjects. Both perspectives emphasize the relational and its role in shaping the self. The deviation on the nature of interaction can be seen more to play a role in their theoretical divergences. For labelling scholars the prominence is on secondary deviation, whereas Marxist scholars have an investment in explaining primary deviance; the ways in which class structure or class strategies pressure the poor into deviant acts. While 'power' remains acknowledged but under theorized by labelling scholars it is strongly conceived in Marxist work. While labelling theorists seem to imply a more decentralised view of social power and authority, Marxists remain committed to a more rigid view of class control. Finally while labelling theorist take an empathetic stance towards the deviant, they do not necessarily criticise part or all of social structure in contrast Marxists view labelling scholars at best co-opted and at worst providing ideological props for an unjust social order. Nevertheless one suspects there are ground for convergence between these two perspectives, rather than a strict separation between the labelling's emphasis on 'process' and the Marxist's stress on 'structure' there is evidence that some Marxist theories are moving into the realm of symbolicalism, through the subtle ways in which ideologies acquire hegemonic power.
'deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label' (Becker 1963) this quote suggests that there is no such thing as a deviant act and that an act only becomes deviant when others perceive and define it as such. Whether or not the label is applied depends on how the act is interpreted by the audience and whether it sticks depends on how powerful the agents of conformity around the individuals are. One can therefore conclude that from an interactionists point of view deviance doesn't exist but is merely a societal reaction to a label that it itself creates.
Becker 'labeling theory reconsidered'
2 Haralambous 'sociology'
3 Lemert 'human deviance, social problems and social control'
4 Taylor,Walton and Young 'the new criminolgy'
5 Haralambous 'sociology'