"Discuss the main tenets of the labelling perspective on crime and deviance. Also consider the limitations and the implications for policy that might be derived from this approach".

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Crime, Deviance and Social Policy SA2770         Card no.0144298

“Discuss the main tenets of the labelling perspective on crime and deviance. Also consider the limitations and the implications for policy that might be derived from this approach”.

In this essay, I would like to explain some of the basic concepts and ideology of the labelling perspective, as are common with the most influential writers of this topic (Although there are too many to mention them all). This will be followed by in-depth explanations of arguments formed by early labelling theorists and the similarities etc between them, and later studies to verify the arguments presented by these theorists, who will be contrasted with the more modern labelling beliefs, arguments and ideas. Ideas both old and new will be assessed, and finally evaluated to establish if or even how they can cause implications to policy.

This will then be completed ultimately with a summary of criticisms and then a full conclusion.

The labelling perspective

Prior to the Labelling perspective, the majority of criminologists had a “non-problematic conception of crime” I.e. Criminal behaviour/activity was just simply something that broke the law.

The ideas that followed by labelling theorists argued that no behaviour is “inherently” criminal, wrong or deviant. The behaviour only turns into that of criminal or deviant behaviour when it is labelled so by others in society-the reaction by society determines whether a crime has taken place or not.

Even an extreme act such as murder is not universally defined as such.

For example what is Euthanasia and a kind act by one person may become a cold blooded murder by the majority. (Roger, Hopkins and Burke: An Introduction to Criminological Theory, Ch8, P36).

The basic universal idea of labelling theorists is that due to an individual having a negative label inflicted upon them by those in control (usually the bourgeoisie, the rich and the powerful) and be negatively stereotyped categorically, the individual lives up to the label and commences a criminal lifestyle. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The individual is labelled as deviant so much so that he/she begins to believe that they actually are so.


For example, Cicourel and Kitsuse conducted a study in 1971 of student counsellors in an American high school. The counsellors had a major role to play in the success of students as they ultimately decided which students should be placed on various different college courses. The decisions were supposed to be based solely on S.A.T and IQ results, but Cicourel and Kitsuse found many discrepancies.

Social class was a major factor in the counsellors’ decisions as they were rejecting larger numbers of working class children or those who did not have an academic background.

So the students were being labelled as failures before they had a chance to succeed or fail as the case may have been, and many did not go on to further education as a result and turned to illegitimate pathways.

(Cicourel AV and Kitsuse JL (1963)-The Educational Decision Makers).

Most labelling theorists also believe that labelling and reacting to individuals (who may or may not be offenders) always has negative consequences, making the crime problem worse or even provoking one that was previously non-existent, possibly deepening the criminal behaviour in some and forcing them to either embark on or resume criminal activities.

“The treatment of deviants denies them the ordinary means of carrying on the routines of everyday life open to most people. Because of this denial, the deviant must of necessity develop illegitimate routines”.

(Becker HS (1963) Outsiders)

Some criminologists also reject traditional conceptions of what crime actually is and therefore they are inevitably critical of the belief that crime is behaviour that breaks criminal law (especially since the laws were formulated by those with the most control).

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This is sometimes called a “Social constructionist viewpoint”.

Labelling theorists also discuss the importance of “the failure of socialisation”. According to labelling theorists, adequate socialisation occurs when some adolescent rebellion is tolerated (IE breaking minor rules). Labelling theorists put forward the argument that the ruling classes within society purposely create non-existent deviance by over-reacting to this “minor rule breaking”. This negative socialisation destroys the self esteem of the individual, who then commits themselves to a life of illegitimacy IE crime.

“Labelled delinquents have lower self-concept than unlabelled delinquents or non-delinquents”.

(Al Talib & Griffin -1994)

Early Labelling Theorists


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