by Dave Harris
This file summarises a number of pieces of work, and connects to some Reading Guides on some background texts. Labelling theory was thought to indicate a radical new departure in theories of crime and deviancy, and it became very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s in sociology generally -- there were even some spin-offs in the sociology of education (see file). Advocates made two basic claims for the superiority of this approach:
The approach enabled us to generalise about deviancy in general, and to move away from the rather unsatisfactory category of 'crime'. Any kind of deviancy could be studied, including physical 'handicaps' or various stigmas. Deviancy became a sociological phenomenon in its own right, enabling us to break with the old views and definitions expressed in penology and social policy: we could finally 'make' rather than 'take' problems as a famous remark put it. This might have a critical impact on opening discussions in policy, which had been rather limited, it was hoped. The approach brought a much greater range of interest in social activities including semi- and non-criminal ones.
The approach was based on the emergence of a new paradigm or perspective in sociology -- interactionism, either symbolic interactionism or particular versions of it. This perspective emphasises the collective rather than the individual nature of social action, advocated a study of interaction rather than causal studies, and focused on social processes including reactions and counteractions. For various reasons, the issues came to be focused on how 'labels' were developed, negotiated, exchanged and applied to people. Such a perspective was often critical, taking the side of the underdog, and criticising official agencies and their labelling work.
Societal reaction theories. These are well described in pieces like those of Wilkins or Stan Cohen, both to be found in Carsons and Wiles (1971). The basic argument is that in all social behaviours, the reactions of other people become important variables in the ongoing process of action. As an example, crashes on the Stock Exchange produce panic as a reaction, and this panic leads to more selling, which amplifies the original panic. It is the same with juvenile delinquency, although this is ignored in classic approaches: thus in the work of Albert Cohen, on criminal subcultures (see file) the negative and malicious characteristics of juvenile delinquent acts, and the activities of juvenile gangs, are effective in producing a strong societal reaction, which classifies members as abnormal, helps the authorities denounce them as intolerable, which then leads to the denial of legitimate opportunities to juveniles, which then encourages them to turn back to deviant ones -- and so on around the cycle.
Societal reactions are therefore very important, and we need more research on the strength and type of reactions, for example, on the degree of tolerance in our society. For Stan Cohen, this led to an interest in the activities of prominent agents of social reaction, especially in the media -- and he went on to coin the term 'moral panic' that was to be much developed later (see file for a marxist version). His famous piece on how the media amplified the mod and rocker 'riots' actually can seem rather odd, with its undertones of crowd psychology -- but the main points are clear: the media stereotyped and polarised the contending groups (not only mods and rockers, but young people and the police) and increased the sensitisation of the participants, encouraging further delinquent behaviour. This is a famous analysis, but still rather a speculative one which ends with a an important note of caution -- we still do not know very much about the effects of labels on actors, although there are reasons to believe these are complex ( see below).
Social reactions have been studied on the micro scale, by examining the interactions between concrete participants, and this leads us to the classic work by Becker. The famous opening section in Outsiders ( Becker 1963), argues that since social groups create rules, they also create deviants or outsiders: no rules, no deviancy. Deviancy is thus not the quality of the act itself, but of the social process of recognition and rule enforcement. More famous implications follow -- it directs our attention to rule-makers and enforcers as much as to deviants, hence the classic piece on 'moral entrepreneurs' [ see file for a reading guide on this chapter] in Outsiders; it shows morality is an enterprise, not just a simple natural social process; it directs our attention to the values of labellers, and this nearly always involves a critique of them, since these values can no longer be seen as natural or neutral: in this sense, the approach takes the side of the underdog, Becker was to insist. On a more theoretical level, the approach can be defended using classic interactionist arguments -- we are demystifying strange concepts such as 'drives', denying the simple objectivity of acts, and drawing attention to collective processes.
Becker is the usual source of radical variants of labelling. His work implies there is no need to explain deviance in the first place, that it is in fact a very common social activity, a normal one, which only becomes abnormal when it is to so labelled. Labelling itself then becomes confirming, a self-fulfilling prophecy, launching people on a deviant career.
Becker's work is the usual target for criticisms too. These have been summarized very well in a number of pieces, including a sympathetic chapter by Plummer in Downes and Rock (1979):
Carsons W and Wiles P
(eds) (1971) The Sociology of Crime and Deviancy in
Britain, vols 1 and 2, Oxford: Martin