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Labelling theory is very useful in explaining criminal behaviour. Labelling theory is one of the theories which explain the causes of deviant and criminal behaviour in society. It gives an insight on what could make an individual be attracted to criminal behavior as opposed to morally desirable behavior. This is very important for criminologists, law enforcement bodies and health care professionals who try to rehabilitate criminals. This paper will discuss the labeling theory with respect to crime. Various theorists who discuss this theory will be studied in order to better understand criminal behaviour. A summary of issues discussed will also be given at the end.
This theory was advanced by Becker and it explains the causes of criminal and deviant behaviour in society. This theory emphasizes that criminal behaviour occurs as a result of the dominant social group labelling minority groups who are viewed to be committing acts which are against social norms. The theory discusses how the behaviour and self identity of an individual can be influenced or determined by different terms which the dominant population uses to classify or describe them. According to this theory, when the society gives negative connotations to an individual, this influences the individual to adopt the labels which are attached to them.
When the society labels a person as deviant, such people internalise the negative label and after time, they adopt the nature of a deviant person so as to conform to society's expectations. Every person knows how other people judge them through previous interactions with other members of society. The self can be said to be moulded according to this perception by society. When the society changes the perception which it has on an individual and sees them to be deviant, an individual may re-evaluate their ‘self' depending on the authority of other people's judgement.
The society or dominant group has the power to decide what constitutes deviance. This group defines deviance and explains the levels which can be tolerated by society. When this group labels someone as deviant, they may change their treatment of the individual. This change usually depends on the extent of deviance exhibited by the individual. The change in treatment of the individual affects their self image. The higher the change, the higher their image is affected. In some cases, especially when the self image is greatly affected, the individual changes their nature to conform to the labels which are given to them.
Becker identifies two groups in society; rule makers and rule breakers. Rule makers and breakers are seen to be two different groups which are in state of contrast. The rule breakers perceive themselves to be in contrast with rule makers as far as moral values are concerned. Rule breakers therefore detach themselves from society and become “outsiders”. However, there is a bond which exists within rule breakers, and they may perceive themselves to be the mainstream society and the rest of society to be “outsiders”.
It is important to note that Becker did not support any deviance theories which were advanced as explanations for causes of crime. Various theories such as differential association, strain theory, control theory and others attempt to explain the causes of crime. However, Becker was opposed to these theories since he was of the opinion that deviance does not exist. The dominant social group was seen by Becker as imposing their view of deviance, and accepting deviance would be accepting the views shared by this majority.
Primary and secondary deviance
Becker explains that there are two levels of deviance; primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the initial level of deviance which is committed by a person. This deviance may either be unintentional or intentional. Many people fantasize or think of committing deviant actions and this may trigger the commission of deviance. Secondary deviance is the deviance which is committed after the labelling by society. The labels which societies give to a person trigger secondary deviance. There are various steps in which secondary deviance is achieved. The first step is being seen committing a deviance act and being labelled a deviant by society. Accepting the “deviant” label is the second step towards achieving secondary deviance. Some people may accept the “deviant” label and begin committing deviant acts as opposed to their normal way of life. The third stage is commission of acts which are consistent with those of a deviant. This occurs after a rule breaker has accepted the deviant tag and they begin practicing a culture which is consistent with that of deviants.
Becker's case study
Becker carried out a case study in which he attempted to find out how marijuana came to be associated with deviants in the United States. During the late 1930s, the Bureau of Narcotics began campaigns against marijuana use in the US. Since the bureau was new, it began these campaigns as a way of justifying its existence. The ethnic Protestants were the prevailing religion during this time and they despised actions taken purely for achieving ecstasy. The Protestant group can be said to be the dominant group as discussed earlier. This group preached of the need to free people from the bondage of drugs. The bureau then began explaining the adverse effects of drugs, including showing the public evidence from Mexico, which had one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world. As a result, legislation was passed to discourage the vice. However, in spite of the legislation, the abuse of marijuana has continued. This can be explained by the labelling theory. The dominant group, the Protestant, branded people who use marijuana deviants. Many of them accepted the tag and continued abusing the drug since this was perceived to be the expectation of the society which branded them a deviant.
Another case, which was observed by Thomas Scheff relates to people with mental illnesses. Most people who the society brands as “mentally unstable” usually begin acting according to how the media portrays the mentally ill. Once they do so, they have access to professionals in mental illnesses. Most people act like the mentally unstable to at a point in life. However, not all are branded mentally unstable and only those who society perceives as weak are. This is consistent with the labelling theory in which the dominant group labels the minority group.
Erving Goffman and labelling
Goffman explains the concept of labelling through the use of social stigma. Stigma is behaviour, reputation or attribute which discredits a person or group. Goffman describes it as the difference between actual and virtual social identity. Goffman explains that people often make certain assumptions based on interaction with other people. These assumptions often translate to expectations and people are expected to behave in certain ways based on these assumptions. These expectations gradually become demands and everyone demands that certain people act in a certain way based on the initial assumptions. When we begin analysing whether out expectations will be met we realise that all along we had been making assumptions.
There are six levels of stigma which were associated with Goffman. The first is concealment and this is the ability of one to hide stigma. The second is disruptiveness and this is the ability of stigma to affect social relations. Aesthetics is the reaction by other people to stigma. Origin relates to the beginning of stigma and can either be deliberate, accidental or by birth. Course is the fifth aspect and it relates to the progression of stigma over time. The sixth aspect is peril and this is the ability of stigma to pose as a danger to other people.
Goffman's contributions to the theory of labelling are important. They explain what may make the dominant social group label the minority group. This also explains why the minority group may be under pressure to change their normal way of life and adapt to the labels which have been given to them. In order to reverse the adverse effects of labelling, stigma should be eliminated through avoiding assumptions about people. People should judge others through long term interaction rather than short term or casual interaction.
Importance of labelling theory in understanding crime
Labelling theory has been seen to alter the normal actions performed by actors who the society has branded or labelled. The labelling makes them alter their actions and adopt those which are consistent with the labels which are attached to them. This is important in understanding crime since criminal behavior can be explained by this theory. When a person commits a criminal act, this is primary deviance and it may be unintentional or intentional. However, when the society brands that person a criminal, this may alter his or her ‘self' and they may start committing criminal activities. This is secondary deviance since it is influenced by the label which the society has given the person. Gradually, such people form groups in which they seek identity. They perceive the law abiding citizens to be a threat to their existence and they target them in their criminal activities.
In order to reverse the criminal behavior and reduce crime, the society should avoid giving negative connotations to people, and see criminal behaviour as a mistake which can be rectified through rehabilitation. The society should understand the adverse effects of giving labels to people, since instead of being a deterrent to crime, it becomes a catalyst to crime. Labelling theory, amongst other theories serves to inform the public, law makers, law enforcers and health practitioners of the ineffectiveness of labelling minority groups.
Criticism of labelling theory
One of the criticisms of the theory is that it is impractical. Empirical tests have not been tested on the population and it therefore cannot be taken to be accurate. It is difficult to test and many sociologists do not perceive it to be a true theory. Another weakness of this theory is that it does not explain primary deviance. This theory only explains secondary deviance but does not explain what motivates one to commit primary deviance. It is therefore perceived to be inconclusive. Further research should be done on the labelling theory in order to determine whether it is accurate and applicable to the society today.
Summary and conclusion
Different aspects of the labelling theory have been discussed. Labelling has been seen to facilitate crime and deviant behaviour through encouraging people to act according to labels which are attached to them. Initially criminal activities may be unintentional or intentional depending on the actor, and this is the primary stage of deviance. However, subsequent crimes may be committed as a result of labelling and this is the secondary stage of deviance. In order to reduce crime we should reduce the negative connotations which are given to people, especially criminals. The society should take crime as a mistake committed by a person, which should be reversed through rehabilitation, rather than admitting that crime is the nature of the person.
Goffman has also been seen to discuss stigma, and this is important in explaining the labelling theory. Due to the assumptions discussed by Goffman, criminals are stigmatised and this encourages them to commit criminal acts according to labels designated to them. However, the research done on labelling theory is inconclusive due to the weaknesses which have been discussed. The absence of practical tests and inability to explain primary deviance shows that more research is needed on the topic. This will prove whether labelling theory is applicable to the modern society. This paper is useful to sociology students, law makers, health care practitioners, law enforcers and the general public since it enables all these groups understand the nature of crime.
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Kendall Diana. Sociology of our times. New York: Cengage Learning 2008, p 111-118
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