Reviewing The Societal Reactions Of Victims Criminology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

In order to discuss this statement we must first understand labelling theory. Labelling theory was developed by Becker in 1963 in order to answer how and why certain behaviour is considered deviant, and understand what the consequences of this are. This is a departure from previous criminological theories which tended to take 'crime' as a fact, 'a form of activity that violates the criminal law' (Hopkins Burke, 2009 p.167) and focus on the causes and consequences of this, whereas labelling theory was more concerned with understanding how the concept of crime and deviance is established. This emerged from Tannenbaum's (1938) research into juvenile delinquency, which stated that 'delinquents…are good kids doing bad things, they become labelled as bad kids and continue in that vein' (Newburn, 2007 p.213). From this, Becker (1963) argued that deviance was not an act in itself, but a label placed on an act by the social reaction to it, that 'deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label' (Becker, 1963, cited in Newburn, 2007), and that the application of this label is more important to the creation of deviance than the act of rule-breaking itself.

Gibbs (1966, cited in Hopkins Burke, 2009) criticises labelling theory for identifying a difference between primary and secondary deviance, without being able to clearly define what deviance is. Lemert (1951, cited in Curran and Renzetti, 1994) outlined primary deviation as straightforward rule breaking, usually for social, political or economic gain, and secondary deviation as any deviant behaviour that follows as a result of societal reactions to the primary deviance. As labelling theory is concerned with the creation and application of this societal reaction, primary deviation is only relevant if it elicits this response. Despite this claim that an act is only deviant once it has been labelled as such, labelling theorists do refer to both primary deviance (a deviant act that is committed before the application of the label), and secret deviance, a deviant act that is not reacted to, perhaps because it is not known about. This has led to claim that labelling theory is too contradictory and ambiguous to be effective.

This leads to the argument that labelling theory does not place enough emphasis on individual choice. Newburn (2007) identifies the failure to explain primary deviance as a strong criticism of labelling theory, as it portrays offenders as passive victims of society, and offers very little explanation as to why people choose to offend in the first place. This effectively removes responsibility from the offender by portraying them as a victim of 'moral entrepreneurs' - those in society who create and enforce the rules of deviancy. Becker (1963) argued that these people are often in a position of power, and enforcing these rules on those of a lower status is a form of social control. This lends strength to the image of the offender as a victim of society. However it fails to address the choices made by the individual that leads to the label of deviant being imposed on them, and the possibility that some people 'actively seek out a deviant label' (Newburn, 2007 p.222) While some critics have accepted the idea that 'deviance is not simply an inherent property of an act' (Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973, cited in Hopkins Burke, 2009 p.176), they still argue that the failure to place any responsibility on the individual or provide any explanation of choices made by them, is a fundamental flaw in labelling theory, and that as Newburn (2007) states, it places too little importance on the act committed in the first place.

As stated above, a key point in labelling theory is that it forces people into the role of offender, and that the application of this stigmatising label can make it more likely that the person in question will then see themselves in that role and continue to offend, making the process a self-fulfilling prophecy - labelling someone a criminal will lead to a criminal career. It follows that if this is true, it means criminal behaviour is in fact reinforced by state intervention (for example conviction of a criminal offence). This leads to another criticism of the theory as it passes responsibility for crime from the offender to the criminal justice system, stating that the efforts made by the system (arrest, imprisonment, rehabilitation etc) 'to prevent crime actually cause crime' (Cullen and Agnew, 2006 p.267). Downes and Rock (2007) elaborate on this argument, stating that if this idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is true then 'the agencies of the State could create far more deviance than would otherwise exist by criminalizing morally disturbing activities [and] by attributing…stigmatizing features to deviant groups' (Downes and Rock, 2007 p.134). Newburn (2007) states that the most extreme form of this theory was seen in Schur's 1973 publication, Radical Nonintervention, which advocated the abolition of all punishment for juvenile delinquents in order to prevent them from becoming career criminals.

This labelling theory proposal, that societal reaction leads offenders into a criminal career, fails to address why some secret deviants, who may never be labelled as criminals, offend repeatedly, whereas a one time offender who is labelled as such by society, may never offend again. This is a point addressed by Braithwaite (1989) who posited the theory of disintegrative and reintegrative shaming as an explanation of why some so-called deviants re-offend whereas others do not. He classified shaming as indications of 'disapproval which have the intention or effect of invoking remorse in the person being shamed and/or condemnation by others' (Braithwaite, 1989, cited in Newburn, 2007). He believed re-offending was a result of disintegrative shaming - a process whereby the offender was stigmatised and excluded, in line with labelling theory. However he also offered the idea of reintegrative shaming, where the initial disapproval is followed by rehabilitation processes that allow the offender to move on from the label of deviant and reintegrate back into society. Newburn (2007) states that Braithwaite's theory was successful in integrating aspects of labelling theory with other, more widely accepted models of criminal behaviour, such as social disorganisation theory, and has been useful in the State's attempts to introduce more restorative justice to the criminal justice system, especially when looking at juvenile offenders.

An important point which helps to sum up these criticisms is the argument that there is no empirical evidence for the existence of secondary deviation being caused by the labelling of someone as deviant, delinquent or criminal.

However, Hopkins Burke (2009) states that when looking at these criticisms, it is important to note that Becker did not intend for his work to be seen as a true theory for understanding criminal behaviour, but simply as a different perspective of approaching research into this area