Labelling Theory - Explained
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Last updated 13 Nov 2017
Howard Becker (1963): his key statement about labelling is: “Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.”
What did Becker mean? What makes something deviant is not what is done, but how people react to what is done. The only thing that deviant acts have in common is that they are labelled "deviant" by others.
Becker is not interested, then, in what causes people to behave in a deviant way. Instead he is interested in why people choose to label their behaviour as deviant and what effect the label has (on the individual and for society).
Becker points out that people react differently to the same act depending on the social context and this influences the label that is placed on the act. Perhaps an extreme example would be the act of killing someone. In the vast majority of cases this would be labelled as murder: highly deviant. However, in a war killing is normalised and indeed may be labelled heroic. However, if the combatant doing the killing is not a member of a formal army, then they will likely be labelled a terrorist and, once again, be deviant. There may be no consensus over the application of the label because "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter".
Our self concept is how we see ourselves; Becker argues that this is created by recognising how others see us (similar to Cooley's concept of the looking-glass self): being aware of how we are labelled. As such, being labelled as deviant can lead to deviance amplification because this label can become our master status: the main way in which we think of and identify ourselves. In this way, people can become career criminals. This relates to the ideas of Lemert (1951) about primary deviance and secondary deviance. Lemert postulated that after someone carries out a deviant act (primary deviance) the reaction of others can lead to further (secondary) deviance.
This idea was developed further by Aaron Cicourel (1968) in his famous study Power and the Negotiation of Justice. Cicourel investigated delinquency in California. He tried to account for the apparent significant difference in delinquency rates between two similar cities and concluded that it was the societal reaction to "delinquency" (so-labelled) that differed rather than the acts themselves.
He identified two "stages" in the "negotiation" of whether behaviour was deemed deviant or not.
At the time of the London Riots in 2011, some commentators pointed out that then London mayor (Boris Johnson) and Prime Minister (David Cameron) had themselves been part of a "delinquent" "gang" at university, called the Bullingdon Club. Despite the notorious student group being associated with a wide range of illegal behaviour, this behaviour was not subject to the same social control and punishment that it would have attracted had they been poor people rioting, rather than rich people "letting off steam".
Clearly then, for interactionists, any data that might appear to show different levels of offending among different social groups or in different localities is unlikely to be much use: the data itself is a social construct. It tells us about the extent to which the label "deviant" is applied rather than informing about different levels of offending.