Classic Texts: Howard Becker "Outsiders" 1963
Last updated 23 Apr 2019
Becker's classic study in which he introduced his labelling theory and the famous quotation: "deviant behaviour is behaviour people so label".
Howard Becker was an interactionist. He was interested in the idea of deviance, not so much as a social problem that needed to be solved, but as an idea: how people chose to see other people and how they chose to see themselves. He was interested in interactions between individuals and small groups and the impact of such interactions.
The heart of labelling theory is actually quite a simple idea: what makes something deviant is the fact that other people say it is deviant. As such, the interesting thing (for Becker) was not the deviant act itself but the reaction to it. An example to explain this could be the ultimate deviant or illegal act: killing someone. Initially, we might think that killing someone would always be deemed deviant, but actually it depends on the context: for soldiers in a war, for example, killing someone is part of their job: it is normal. So it is not the act itself which is deviant - what matters is where it is happening, who is doing it, who is observing it, how agents of social control (e.g. the police) respond to it, etc. This could be true of almost any deviant act we can think of. Some anti-social behaviour might be seen as "high jinx" when carried out by white, middle-class students and as deviant and unacceptable behaviour when carried out by other youths.
It is the agents of social control who have the ability to make a label stick, and do their labelling in public. Once someone has been labelled as a deviant, there are a number of possible consequences. The first is that it could become their master status - the way they see themselves - and this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where people end up living up to their label, starting a deviant career and ending up part of a deviant subculture. It also has the effect that people might want to socialise with that person, or offer them work, and this too can effect the likelihood of them following a deviant career.
Because Becker is an interactionist, rather than a Marxist, he does not develop the idea that this process might be designed deliberately to control and police the working class (although others, like Stuart Hall, have considered these ideas). Others question whether Becker's concept is useful in the real fight against crime. Deviant behaviour may just be the behaviour that people so label, but for the victims of crime, crime is a very real problem that requires solutions.