Selections on Labelling Theory

#1 from: Downes D and Rock P  (eds)  (1979) Deviant Interpretations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chapter four. Plummer K  'Misunderstanding Labelling Perspectives'

There are two main kinds of criticisms of labelling theory -- theoretical and positivistic  (for the latter, see Gove). Symbolic interactionism is only one element in the development of the approach [one which Plummer is especially keen to defend] ( see file on Blumer on s.i.) 

It is a perspective rather than an actual agreed theory, incorporating lots of work, and lots of different theoretical foundations, including functionalism  (which lies behind the notion of societal reaction). The main themes have been largely selected by the critics rather than the advocates themselves, and critics have focused on debates such as whether deviance is really objective, or always socially constructed. Labellers themselves are more interested in labels, their characteristics, sources, conditions of application, and consequences. This is common to a number of sociological perspectives, in fact. However, isolated problems have been selected -- thus marxists want to attack interactionist elements. The object of attack has often been the hardest version of labelling theory, where labelling is the only variable in the construction of deviancy, and whether consequence is are always a self-fulfilling prophecy: this is invariably a vulgarisation, however. Finally, many problems are recognised by actual authors themselves -- for example, the conditions under which labelling occurs  [and see the file on Becker]. 

The critics themselves have incompatible interests. Thus Taylor et al [see file] say that the institutional setting of power has been neglected [ as do gramscians -- see file] , while phenomenologists say that labelling is too deterministic. What a lot sociological debates lurk in this, such as the disputes about structure and meaning. Plummer says that symbolic interactionism should be defended in its own terms -- so that the apparent mistake of  'ignoring social structure' is really a reasoned anti-absolutism. There is simply a debate about whether approaches should be based on experience or theoretical considerations  (pages 92f). 

Labelling theory faces the usual problem of definitions and values  [including those arising from his determination to take sides and so on]. Becker's definition ignores the defining characteristics of deviancy in favour of suggesting that social interaction is a universal process. This is too general, but at least it highlights ambiguities with categories like  'deviant'. However, most people seem to know what counts as deviant activity -- it looks like a very abstract sociological point, mere sophistry, to suggest that murder is only what is labelled as murder. Even Becker backs away from this problem with his category of  'secret deviancy' [ see file for Becker himself on this -- or rather my notes on Becker himself], which implies that deviancy can exist without being discovered and labelled. The approach needs a tighter definition, such as wanting to explain only  'rule violation followed by stigmatisation'. This could be seen as general, societal or situational. 

The approach is often accused of having a limited focus: 

  1. It might neglect the process of becoming deviant in the first place, or possess only a tacit theory of primary deviance. Becker argues that labels initiate deviant behaviour and that deviant behaviour is ubiquitous in the first place. Some critics argue that that  [moral?] choice is also important. 
  2. Other critics point to the social determinism of the approach, which allows for no resistance. This is not usually so, however, not for the work of Goffman, at least, and it does not apply to recent studies which refer to the active seeking of labels  [as some sort of badge of honour, perhaps -- as in Gay Pride?] -- these sorts of complex responses are predicted best by symbolic interactionism, in fact. 
  3. It ignores certain problem areas of deviancy, such as violent crime, physical handicap, or sexual activity. But these are still labelled subsequently, by abstract agencies, and in ways that  involve social reaction and self-reaction. 
  4. It neglects power, especially the power of institutions. This is a dogmatic assertion however, and it tends to over-emphasise crime again, especially where there is a political explanation for crime. Many  'deviants', such as blind people, really are powerless. The criticism very often reflects political differences -- there is an anti-bureaucratic 'alienation problematic' in labelling theory  [which became unfashionable]. Perhaps the analysis is politically suspect, and perhaps labelling theory operates with an unduly pluralistic view of society -- but it is not incompatible with a stratified view. 
  5. Labelling theory neglects structure -- but really, it sees 'structure' in symbolic interactionist terms, and not in marxist or functionalist ones. 
  6. Labelling theory lacks empirical validity -- but only the crudest versions are tested in works such as that of Gove  [see notes] Labelling theory allows for much more complexity now, and including notions of the irreversibility of labels, or the positive effects of them. 
My comments

Rather a good example of  'special pleading' here, perhaps? Plummer's retorts are useful, but he certainly switches ground, and chooses different examples to defend labelling theory.

#2 from Carsons W and Wiles P (eds) (1971) The Sociology of Crime and Deviancy in Britain, vols 1 and 2, Oxford: Martin Robertson

Chapter three (of volume 2) Philipson and Roche  'Phenomenology, Sociology and the Study of Deviance'

The chapter begins with a review of some of the basic concepts of classical phenomenology, such as the notion of intentionality. [ This is probably quite an unfamiliar approach these days, although it was once fashionable. Social phenomenology aimed to use the insights of classical phenomenology to clarify and examine the assumptions made by social sciences, principally about the ways in which social meanings were constructed and shared. I have a file, inevitably I suppose, on an early summary of the main issues by Husserl, and another on the 'social phenomenology' of Schutz].

Differences are developed with existential phenomenology, which leads to investigations of the  'natural attitude', to Schutz and to his particular interests -- idealisations in intersubjectivity, the reciprocity of perspectives, the congruency of relevance systems, the ability to know the Other better than he does himself, the linguistic turn and the development of ethnomethodology. Assumptions about these processes are found in most Sociology -- for example, it is assumed that a rational action will be the same for different actors, crude ideal types are commonly deployed, Sociology often bumps into problems associated with the relations between first and second order constructs, common-sense concepts have to be related to sociological ones were via little discussed processes such as coding. 

This critique [that there are many and clarified assumptions about the ways in which human beings perceive and interact with each other] is applied to deviancy research, as expressed in anomie theories, sub cultural theories, symbolic interactionism, and any other move towards sociological understanding of the personal meanings of deviancy. Deviancy is a unified phenomenon though, centred on rule-breaking. But much else is unclarified, and still penetrated by common-sense understandings --  'what everyone knows'. For example, there is often anecdotal evidence, and horizons of meanings [ more commonly known as  'contexts'] are simply assumed to be common knowledge. 

The labelling process involves a lot of assumptions -- for example, is this a 'members' term' or a special sociological concept? How and why are people grouped in the ways they are? The everyday behaviour involved in  'societal reaction' [especially the ways in which shared understandings are achieved?] is simply assumed, rather than investigated  [even in Cicourel or Garfinkel]. The notion of an adequate explanation seems to simply involve the reconstruction of members' recipes [standard ways of acting and interpreting the social world]. Only Cicourel or Werthman notice this, but even they offer no background or discussion of the observer's relevance system -- what is needed is something more like Douglas's work on suicide, which closely interrogates the relevance systems of the relevant authorities.