This essay will
assess the extent to which labelling theory can explain why people commit
crime. The theory will be discussed in depth in order to understand what links
it to crime. A range of avenues will be explored in order to gain enough
evidence for a strong argument.


To start, it is important to understand labelling theory.
It is closely connected
with the interactionist perspective. Interactionists do
not assume lawbreakers are
different from law-abiding individuals and
suggest that most
individuals commit deviant
and criminal acts
but only some
are caught and
stigmatised for it.
They believe that deviancy
exists through the application of rules (Rubington, 2016). When individuals are
labelled deviant it is because they have gone against the norms and values of
society. The theory focuses on individuals whom have been labelled deviant and
continue down a path of deviancy.

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Lemert (1951) discusses
primary deviance as
deviant rule-breaking
behaviour that is
carried out by
an individual who
sees themselves a
conformist to
society. And secondary deviance as
an act that
comes after being publically labelled.
Once an act
and individual have
been publically labelled
deviant, those individuals may
see themselves as
a deviant person
and adopt a
‘master status’. This
status then becomes
their ‘self-identity’
and leads to
a self-fulfilling prophecy.
They begin to
live up to
their label that
was created following a social reaction.
This can lead to self-rejection as they start to adopt the master status and
believe in the negative labels. They can begin to reject the norms of society
and this gives them a motive to reject the conventional values and become


Often, the individuals who
have been labelled
will come from
a subculture of
other labelled individuals
where bonds are formed. They
would be deemed
as ‘cool’ for
committing a deviant
act and this
could continue their
criminal paths through life
because of feeling accepted. This is supported by Cohen (1955) who says ‘the
delinquent subculture, is a way of dealing with problems. Some children are
denied status in the respectable society because they cannot meet the criteria
of the respectable status system. The delinquent subculture deals with these
problems by providing criteria of status which these children can meet’.

It becomes difficult
for a labelled
individual to live
practically and economically and
live a law-abiding
life once they
have been a part
of the justice
system. The individual might not actually
want to internalise their
label but are forced
into living up
to a label
that society stigmatises as they have no other means of
being accepted within society.


Media plays a
huge part when
it comes to
labelling and
stigmatising individuals. Media creates
‘folk devils’ and
paints a distorted
picture of events.
When this happens,
it creates a
moral panic among
societies. This is
called a deviancy
amplification spiral. A
great example of
this would-be Stanley Cohen’s mods
and rockers (1964) where he
discusses that when
individuals act in
a way that
is not deemed
acceptable by society
then the media
tends to overreact
about it. Instead
of the media
helping to stop
deviancy, they amplify
it making society’s reaction
to the crime
worse. Because
social media is so advanced and now enables people to public shame deviant
individuals through photos or names it makes it harder to them to break away
from their label. This could lead them to continue committing crime because
they are already being judged outside of their local community. This is
supported by Becker
(1982) ‘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’.


It is important
to understand why some individuals are labelled and others are not. Or why some
deviant acts are unnoticed compared to others. Moral Entrepreneurs, or
agents with social
control are the
ones who enforce
the boundaries of
what is considered normal
behaviour. These include
the police, court
officials and education
authorities whom make
subjective decisions on
labelling individuals. By
doing this, and
creating categories of
deviance, moral entrepreneurs reinforce
the power structure
of society. For example, a nurse is able to inject
heroin under doctors’ orders but if a drug user injected heroin it is illegal.
This is supported by Becker (1971) ‘The
act of injecting
heroin into a
vein is not
inherently deviant. If
a nurse gives
a patient drugs
under a doctor’s orders,
it is perfectly
proper. It is
when it is
done in a way
that is not
publicly defined as
proper that it
becomes deviant’.

An act only becomes deviant
when society defines
it as such.
Deviance is subjective and
once the rules
have been put
into place, there
are only some
individuals who fall
victim to the
application of them.
This is supported by Sutherland (1940) who states, ‘crimes committed by
corporations are almost always prosecuted at civil cases, but the same crime
committed by an individual is ordinarily treated as a criminal offense’. Even
if an individual’s commit the same crime, it depends upon their class status
and power as to how they will be punished.

Individuals who hold
the least power
in society, such
as, working-class people are
the ones whom
are most likely
to be labelled
as deviant as
they are the
ones with the
least social control.
This shows that
working-class individuals are
more prone to
being labelled as
they do not
have the power
to over-come
being labelled by
society. For
example, a working-class male, who may not have been directly delinquent, maybe
in possession of cannabis, would be more likely to be stopped and caught out
based on his appearance compared to a middle-class woman making justice

This can be
explained by Cicourel’s (1968) negotiation of justice and typification of an
individual. He explains how the police officers normally have assumption based
ideas of what deviant individuals should look like. This leads officers to
focus on certain groups of individuals resulting in class bias, which then
leads to working class areas being patrolled by more police officers and in
turn, more arrests being made. This can result in them feeling
victimised.Because working class individuals do not
tend to have the power
or support in
place to break
from a deviant
label, they are
easily caught up
in the system
and therefore their
crimes are less
likely to go

West Midlands
police stop and search map was looked at in depth to correlate with the above
information. In November 2017, there was 162 stop and searches in the City
Centre area of Birmingham alone. When clicking on the areas these stop and
searches were taken, many of the objects of search were controlled drugs, many
outcomes were nothing found – no further action. If they were not in possession
of anything illegal, then what would warrant them to be stopped and searched
other than labelling. The stopping and search can make individuals resentful of
the police and this then becomes a vicious circle, the individuals are
pre-labelled, do not want to cooperate with the police because they feel as
though they are being singled out and then are more likely to be arrested based
on the attitudes they present whilst in contact with police officers.


Having looked
at labelling theory and all of the different theorists and sections involved it
is clear to see that the theory itself does provide some explanation as to why
individuals are deviant and commit crime. Even though there is a lot of focus
on individuals being labelled after they have committed a crime it fails to
explain as to why individuals commit the crime to begin with. This is supported
by Gove (1975) who states, ‘labelling neglects the process of becoming deviant
in the first place’.


When discussing
the typification of individuals it is easy to see why the individuals whom are
watched closely by the police are very likely to be caught for something
against an individual whom does not fit the typification. This would not be a
true reflection of criminal behaviour, rather a reflection of criminal
behaviour by those who have been pre-labelled before even committing an
offence. This could be based on others who fit the same criteria as them and
have committed an offence or simply because of the way that they look. This
would not mean the individual is or has reason to be delinquent, rather that
they are pushed into delinquency through feeling victimised. For example, Cohen
(1958) states ‘a middle-class boy is less likely to be taken to station to be
booked and it is extremely unlikely he will be convicted and sentenced.


However, being
labelled a criminal will depend on the individual’s personality themselves. If
they had been labelled, it would be down to each individuals personality as to
how they would handle their labels. The individual may not care about being
labelled and could be unaffected. This would show that they would not
continuously be committing a crime due to being labelled a criminal but simply
because it is the path they wish to take. Also, if an individual was committing
a crime to survive, labelling them would not necessarily mean they continue on
that criminal path because they have been labelled. For example, someone whom
is homeless and has no money steals food from a shop or squats in a building,
they are doing this as an essential need for survival not because they are
deviant individuals.


theory relies on police statistics, which are not always the true value of
crime. According to Official Statistics (2018), there are several causes of
socially constructed crime and why crime statistics underestimate crime. These
are as follows, underreporting of known crimes, the police not recording all
known crimes (not accepting a crime has been committed), selective law
enforcement and the fluctuations in crime rates for reasons such as changes in
the law.

It fails to
focus on white collar crime or corporate crime but only on individuals who are
less powerful within society. It tends to be deterministic, suggesting that
a deviant career
is unavoidable once
an individual is
labelled. Labelling
theory also fails to explain
why primary crime
is committed before
an individual is labelled and the motivations towards deviance.


To conclude, labelling theory
helps individuals to
understand criminal activity
from a different
perspective, about
individuals whom are on the path of or have already been labelled. It does
not explain true crime within society and only focuses on
crime that is noticed through labelling. And therefore, does not explain why
all individuals commit crime.