Labelling: the theory

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Labelling: the theory

Traditionally, Sociology has had a number of assumptions built into the way it tries to understand deviance. There are three in particular that are worth considering:

  1. Society is a moral community.
  2. Deviants are different to 'normal' people.
  3. Quantitative techniques are objective measures.

Durkheim first formulated the idea that a society is a moral community. The community is based on consensus over collective sentiments. In other words, it was considered possible to objectively identify those actions that were deviant. What the traditional approach is arguing, is that deviance is a 'common sense' concept, and that there is consensus within a society as to what constitutes deviance.

Traditionally, deviant activity means those actions contrary to the norms whether discovered or not. Labelling draws a distinction between rule breaking and deviance with deviance being that rule breaking that is discovered and labelled.

There is a common assumption that deviants are different to 'normal' people. This assumption is the basis of the positivist search for the causes and types of deviance. This search has lead through physical and psychological, to ecological and sub-cultural theories. This approach then results in deviance being the result of bad genes, bad socialisation or bad environment. Throughout the spotlight, the emphasis has been on the deviant. Little attention was paid to enforcement or professional agencies that obviously have something to do either with identifying, catching, punishing or curing the deviant.

The third important assumption is that statistical research can be relied on to be accurate. There has been a heavy reliance on official statistics on convicted criminals, or the records of official institutions such as hospitals, or coroners' courts, for example. These types of statistics can be misleading or simply inaccurate.


The traditional approach to deviance is thus built on the idea that deviance was breaking rules that were consensually held and objectively right. That since only some people were deviant, they must be different to us and therefore we should not only try to discover why they were deviant, but should do something about it.

Deviance was not just a sociological problem, (a question of understanding), but also a social problem (something we should do something about).

Labelling departs from the view above. This, for the most part, is a departure from positivism - a suspicion of 'social facts' and a denial that human behaviour is totally determined by society. The social action approach in sociology, of which labelling is a part, is much more concerned with meaning ('why' questions) rather than with positivism's concern with the extent of phenomena ('what', or 'how much' questions).

This emphasis on the importance of meaning in explaining behaviour can be illustrated using Blumer's three premises:

  1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them.
  2. These meanings are derived from, or arise out of, the social interaction between people.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through an interpretive process, used by the person in dealing with the things s/he encounters.

Try taking a symbol - for example, a cross or a swastika, or an image - for example, a beggar in a street or a run down inner city estate and imagine the different ways in which people might give meaning to such symbols or images.

The key areas are:

  1. Origin of the deviant act is ignored.
  2. Deviance is seen as a social process.
  3. Interest in why some people are more likely to be labelled.
  4. Emphasis on 'definition of the situation'.
  5. Distrust of official statistics.
  6. Preference for qualitative research methods.

Labelling theorists tend to be uninterested in what 'causes' a person to act in a way defined as deviant. They are more interested in what happens when a person is perceived as a deviant - the focus is on the interaction between the deviant and those who define him/her as deviant.

Deviance is a social process, because to define an act as deviant, it is in effect to be described as anti-social. Deviance is not given in an act; it is conferred upon an act. It is a process because it occurs over time, it involves a number of interactions - the deviant is stopped, interrogated, charged, sentenced.

What statistics do show, is that certain types of people are much more likely to be given a deviant label. In turn, this influences individual and group behaviour. Labelling suggests that such people are not more deviant than us, but more likely to be labelled deviant.

Both supposed deviants and their accusers bring particular meanings and values to particular situations. For example, police stereotypes of 'typical' criminals can have important consequences.

When such a source says, in effect, 'you stink', it is difficult for the maligned person to avoid an ensuing identity crisis and a grudging but gradual shift in self regard from one who does not stink to one who does.

Labelling theorists do not accept that statistics reveal the 'true' extent of crime. They object that statistics are not unbiased/objective, but are socially constructed. As such statistics tell us more about the compilers than they do about the activities of criminals. Consequently, labelling theorists tend to use participant observation or in-depth interviews as the preferred research method.

Labelling theory asks us to question the opinions of experts, to not take their opinions for granted. We need to consider who defines what a 'deviant' is.

Interactionists argue that human action is creative. We create our roles in relation to and adaptation to others. Normality is negotiated. Labelling further argues, that in some situations people cannot negotiate a label, but are forced to accept the label that others give them.

Now we don't need labelling theory to realise that we all use labels to categorise people, situations and objects. Social groups create social order by enforcing standards of what is considered normal, and there comes into being a sort of ready reckoner system of labels to describe those that veer from the standard. The criminally deviant carries one set, but so do the physically 'different', the mentally 'different', and so on. These labels become seen as objective descriptions of people and situations. In fact, a pause for thought should make it obvious that they are arbitrary - they are the standards we have, but they are not the only ones we could have. Indeed, cross-cultural comparison makes this very clear.

How are Labels applied?

1. Labelling involves the application of crude stereotypes by authorities such as the police or teachers. These stereotypes then influence their actions. For example, the police are more likely to stop and interrogate, or arrest and charge working class and ethnic minority youths.


2. Labelling theorists question the nature of deviance by asking if there really is a difference between deviants and us the supposedly normal. Normality is questioned, and if we cannot describe normality, then how can we define deviance? It is suggested that all people contain elements of both. If this is so, then why do only some of us get labelled.

Cicourel examines this process of labelling in his study, 'The Negotiation of Justice' and by Lambert in 'The Police can Choose'.

'Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied, deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.' (Becker, 'Outsiders')

What Becker is getting at, is that the same act or appearance can be considered and responded to in different ways. That the same act does not always produce the same response, or the same consequences for the perpetrator of the act.

Becker continues:

'The degree to which other people will respond to a given act as deviant varies greatly. Several kinds of variation seem worth mentioning. First of all, there are variations over time. A person believed to have committed a given deviant act may at one time be responded too much more leniently than he would be at some other time. The occurrence of drives against various kinds of deviance illustrates this clearly. At various times enforcement officials may decide to make an all out attack on some particular kind of deviance such as gambling, drug addiction, or homosexuality. It is obviously much more dangerous to engage in one of these activities when a drive is on than at any other time.'

One of the effects of these 'drives' is the creation of 'fantasy crime-waves' - the creation of sensationalist newspaper reporting.

'The degree to which an act will be treated as deviant depends also on who commits the act and who feels he has been harmed by it. Rules tend to be applied to some persons more than to others. Studies of juvenile delinquency make the point clearly. Boys from middle class areas do not get as far in the legal process when they are apprehended, as do boys from slum areas. The middle class boy is less likely, when picked up by the police, to be taken to the station, less likely when taken to the station to be booked; and it is extremely unlikely that he will be convicted and sentenced. This variation occurs even though the original infraction of the rule is the same in the two cases.'

What is being revealed here is the important distinction between the official delinquent (the labelled), as distinct from the juvenile who commits a delinquent act (for example, out of character).

The above is a classic middle class defence - you demonstrate that you don't fit the stereotype of the criminal. The criminal stereotype is working class. This defence works as well for adults as it does for juveniles.

Another aspect of labelling is that it may in some cases be applied only when it results in a particular outcome:

'Some rules are enforced only when they result in certain consequences. The unmarried mother furnishes a clear example. Vincent points out that illicit sexual relations seldom result in severe punishment or social censure for the offenders. If, however, a girl becomes pregnant as a result of such activities the reaction of others is likely to be severe.'