This essay willassess the extent to which labelling theory can explain why people commitcrime. The theory will be discussed in depth in order to understand what linksit to crime. A range of avenues will be explored in order to gain enoughevidence for a strong argument. To start, it is important to understand labelling theory.
It is closely connectedwith the interactionist perspective. Interactionists donot assume lawbreakers aredifferent from law-abiding individuals andsuggest that mostindividuals commit deviantand criminal actsbut only someare caught andstigmatised for it.They believe that deviancyexists through the application of rules (Rubington, 2016). When individuals arelabelled deviant it is because they have gone against the norms and values ofsociety. The theory focuses on individuals whom have been labelled deviant andcontinue down a path of deviancy.
Lemert (1951) discussesprimary deviance asdeviant rule-breakingbehaviour that iscarried out byan individual whosees themselves aconformist tosociety. And secondary deviance asan act thatcomes after being publically labelled.Once an actand individual havebeen publically labelleddeviant, those individuals maysee themselves asa deviant personand adopt a’master status’. Thisstatus then becomestheir ‘self-identity’and leads toa self-fulfilling prophecy.They begin tolive up totheir label thatwas created following a social reaction.This can lead to self-rejection as they start to adopt the master status andbelieve in the negative labels.
They can begin to reject the norms of societyand this gives them a motive to reject the conventional values and becomedeviant. Often, the individuals whohave been labelledwill come froma subculture ofother labelled individualswhere bonds are formed. Theywould be deemedas ‘cool’ forcommitting a deviantact and thiscould continue theircriminal paths through lifebecause of feeling accepted. This is supported by Cohen (1955) who says ‘thedelinquent subculture, is a way of dealing with problems. Some children aredenied status in the respectable society because they cannot meet the criteriaof the respectable status system. The delinquent subculture deals with theseproblems by providing criteria of status which these children can meet’.It becomes difficultfor a labelledindividual to livepractically and economically andlive a law-abidinglife once theyhave been a partof the justicesystem. The individual might not actuallywant to internalise theirlabel but are forcedinto living upto a labelthat society stigmatises as they have no other means ofbeing accepted within society.
Media plays ahuge part whenit comes tolabelling andstigmatising individuals. Media creates’folk devils’ andpaints a distortedpicture of events.When this happens,it creates amoral panic amongsocieties. This iscalled a deviancyamplification spiral. Agreat example ofthis would-be Stanley Cohen’s modsand rockers (1964) where hediscusses that whenindividuals act ina way thatis not deemedacceptable by societythen the mediatends to overreactabout it.
Insteadof the mediahelping to stopdeviancy, they amplifyit making society’s reactionto the crimeworse. Becausesocial media is so advanced and now enables people to public shame deviantindividuals through photos or names it makes it harder to them to break awayfrom their label. This could lead them to continue committing crime becausethey are already being judged outside of their local community. This issupported by Becker(1982) ‘Deviancy is nota quality ofthe act aperson commits butrather a consequence ofthe application byothers of rulesand sanctions toan ‘offender’. It is importantto understand why some individuals are labelled and others are not. Or why somedeviant acts are unnoticed compared to others.
Moral Entrepreneurs, oragents with socialcontrol are theones who enforcethe boundaries ofwhat is considered normalbehaviour. These includethe police, courtofficials and educationauthorities whom makesubjective decisions onlabelling individuals. Bydoing this, andcreating categories ofdeviance, moral entrepreneurs reinforcethe power structureof society. For example, a nurse is able to injectheroin under doctors’ orders but if a drug user injected heroin it is illegal.This is supported by Becker (1971) ‘Theact of injectingheroin into avein is notinherently deviant. Ifa nurse givesa patient drugsunder a doctor’s orders,it is perfectlyproper.
It iswhen it isdone in a waythat is notpublicly defined asproper that itbecomes deviant’. An act only becomes deviantwhen society definesit as such.Deviance is subjective andonce the ruleshave been putinto place, thereare only someindividuals who fallvictim to theapplication of them.This is supported by Sutherland (1940) who states, ‘crimes committed bycorporations are almost always prosecuted at civil cases, but the same crimecommitted by an individual is ordinarily treated as a criminal offense’. Evenif an individual’s commit the same crime, it depends upon their class statusand power as to how they will be punished.
Individuals who holdthe least powerin society, suchas, working-class people arethe ones whomare most likelyto be labelledas deviant asthey are theones with theleast social control.This shows thatworking-class individuals aremore prone tobeing labelled asthey do nothave the powerto over-comebeing labelled bysociety. Forexample, a working-class male, who may not have been directly delinquent, maybein possession of cannabis, would be more likely to be stopped and caught outbased on his appearance compared to a middle-class woman making justicenegotiable. This can beexplained by Cicourel’s (1968) negotiation of justice and typification of anindividual.
He explains how the police officers normally have assumption basedideas of what deviant individuals should look like. This leads officers tofocus on certain groups of individuals resulting in class bias, which thenleads to working class areas being patrolled by more police officers and inturn, more arrests being made. This can result in them feelingvictimised.Because working class individuals do nottend to have the poweror support inplace to breakfrom a deviantlabel, they areeasily caught upin the systemand therefore theircrimes are lesslikely to gounnoticed.
West Midlandspolice stop and search map was looked at in depth to correlate with the aboveinformation. In November 2017, there was 162 stop and searches in the CityCentre area of Birmingham alone. When clicking on the areas these stop andsearches were taken, many of the objects of search were controlled drugs, manyoutcomes were nothing found – no further action.
If they were not in possessionof anything illegal, then what would warrant them to be stopped and searchedother than labelling. The stopping and search can make individuals resentful ofthe police and this then becomes a vicious circle, the individuals arepre-labelled, do not want to cooperate with the police because they feel asthough they are being singled out and then are more likely to be arrested basedon the attitudes they present whilst in contact with police officers. Having lookedat labelling theory and all of the different theorists and sections involved itis clear to see that the theory itself does provide some explanation as to whyindividuals are deviant and commit crime. Even though there is a lot of focuson individuals being labelled after they have committed a crime it fails toexplain as to why individuals commit the crime to begin with.
This is supportedby Gove (1975) who states, ‘labelling neglects the process of becoming deviantin the first place’. When discussingthe typification of individuals it is easy to see why the individuals whom arewatched closely by the police are very likely to be caught for somethingagainst an individual whom does not fit the typification. This would not be atrue reflection of criminal behaviour, rather a reflection of criminalbehaviour by those who have been pre-labelled before even committing anoffence. This could be based on others who fit the same criteria as them andhave committed an offence or simply because of the way that they look. Thiswould not mean the individual is or has reason to be delinquent, rather thatthey 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 bebooked and it is extremely unlikely he will be convicted and sentenced.
However, beinglabelled a criminal will depend on the individual’s personality themselves. Ifthey had been labelled, it would be down to each individuals personality as tohow they would handle their labels. The individual may not care about beinglabelled and could be unaffected. This would show that they would notcontinuously be committing a crime due to being labelled a criminal but simplybecause it is the path they wish to take.
Also, if an individual was committinga crime to survive, labelling them would not necessarily mean they continue onthat criminal path because they have been labelled. For example, someone whomis 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 aredeviant individuals. Labellingtheory relies on police statistics, which are not always the true value ofcrime. According to Official Statistics (2018), there are several causes ofsocially constructed crime and why crime statistics underestimate crime. Theseare as follows, underreporting of known crimes, the police not recording allknown crimes (not accepting a crime has been committed), selective lawenforcement and the fluctuations in crime rates for reasons such as changes inthe law. It fails tofocus on white collar crime or corporate crime but only on individuals who areless powerful within society.
It tends to be deterministic, suggesting thata deviant careeris unavoidable oncean individual islabelled. Labellingtheory also fails to explainwhy primary crimeis committed beforean individual is labelled and the motivations towards deviance. To conclude, labelling theoryhelps individuals tounderstand criminal activityfrom a differentperspective, aboutindividuals whom are on the path of or have already been labelled. It doesnot explain true crime within society and only focuses oncrime that is noticed through labelling. And therefore, does not explain whyall individuals commit crime.