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Since the beginning of human civilization, criminal activity has plagued human society. Over the centuries, the society has taken steps to respond to this vice that threatens the moral fabric of the society. The most significant step in combating crime has been in the establishment of a criminal justice system that deals with criminals by imposing relevant punishments. In spite of the presence of a functional criminal justice system, crime has continued to increase in the society.
Sociologists and criminology scholars have tried to address this problem by coming up with theories that seek to explain the root of crime and therefore offer ways of controlling it. One of the theories developed to explain crime and criminality is the Labelling Theory by Howard Becker. This theory stresses on the social process through which certain acts and people are labelled as deviant. This paper will explain in detail Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory and its view of Crime and Criminality.
Becker’s Labelling Theory
Labelling theory emerged as a dominant theory on crime during the 1960s and it challenged the traditional view of positivist criminology that regarded crime to be caused of factors such as moral development and personality. This theory also seeks to analyze what happens to individuals after they have been given the label of “criminal” by the society.
Becker’s theory builds on the works of the criminologist and sociologist, Frank Tannenbaum who declared that tagging, identifying, and segregating are the processes through which criminals are made. Tannenbaum suggested that because of this labelling, an individual is compelled to become the very thing he/she is perceived to be (Plummer 2000).
Through his theory, Howard Becker argued that the society, which dictates the actions that should be regarded as deviance and the ones that should not, is the creator of deviance. Becker (1963) articulated the labelling theory by asserting, “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders” (p.9). In the Labelling Theory, emphasis is placed not in the behaviour itself but in the response that the behaviour gets from other people.
By studying the process through which people become deviant, Becker noted that social control agencies such as the police and courts are created to label people as outside the normal, law-abiding community. Becker (1963) also noted that the social group that creates deviance is usually the middle or upper class.
This is because economic or political power has to be possessed in order for ones views to be heard or enforced (Regoli 2009). When developing this theory, Becker was engaged in a study that focused on marijuana use and its control and he analyzed how the political power worked to give marijuana use a deviant label.
Becker sought to discover the consequences that the application of the label of deviant had on the individual labelled. He noted that specific behaviour is not in itself deviant or normal; rather, people define it as such by applying labels to it and defining it in a certain way.
The social authorities such as police officers, teachers, judges, and religious teachers, give the label deviance on certain behaviour (Walklate 2007). Becker notes that the social audience who make the rules as to what is deviance also applies it on certain individuals who become outsiders once this label is attributed to them.
Becker (1963) insisted on the differentiation between “rule-breaking behaviour” and “deviance”. He states that the term deviant is a label applied to some individuals by a part of society and not all rule-breaking behaviour is regarded as deviant. On the other hand, not all who are labelled as deviant might be guilty of rule breaking.
The theory also revealed that acts are not generalized as deviant or normal: the level to which an act will be regarded as deviant is sometimes dictated by the social status or race of the person who commits the act. To demonstrate this point, Becker illustrated how juvenile delinquents from a middle-class background were less likely to be processed through the legal process compared to similar offenders from the slum areas.
Labelling Theory’s View on Crime
The theory reveals that the application of labels increases the level of crime since it turns certain people into outsiders. Mesmaecker (2010) observes that it only takes one criminal offense for someone to be labelled a criminal. This label might last for a lifetime with dire repercussions for the individual.
Becker (1963) notes that the society always perceives the labelled person as guilty and this can be seen from the police habit of rounding up known offenders when they are investigating a current crime. Because of the label, the police view these individuals as lacking in respect of law and expect them to continue engaging in crime.
This is the reason why the juvenile system attempts to hide the criminal records of young offenders since if the record is public, it will have a negative impact on the future of the individual. Judith and Tina (2003) elaborate that the criminal records of an individual will deny them certain opportunities such as obtaining jobs or advancing in their education and this might prompt the offender to commit new crime.
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The theory also highlights the role that the criminal justice system has in increasing crime. Becker (1966) suggests that the court system can have a negative impact in its efforts at deterring future offending. By labelling the defendant as deviant, the court will increase the chances of future offending by the individual.
The labelling theory also explains why some crimes appear to be more prevalent than others are. Becker (1963) explains that some particular kind of deviance might face the attention of the society or authorities. Activities aimed at controlling this behaviour might therefore result in arrest of individuals who engage in this deviant acts.
For example, the all out attack by the US government on drug use during the 1980s led to an overrepresentation of drug-related crimes in the society. If the society labels a certain act as deviant and then focuses on it, the perception that this “crime” is on the rise will follow.
The labelling theory also recognizes how the society groups together those who have broken some agreed-upon rules. A person is no longer viewed as an individual but rather as a member of a homogeneous category that is made up of other people who have committed a similar crime. Because of this categorization, the individual is at risk of being rejected by the social groups he once belonged to (Walklate 2007).
His family and friends may severe ties with him and this isolation will be detrimental to the well being of the individual. The labelled individual is therefore likely to join the deviant group or sub-culture that society assumes him to belong to and since this new group will accept him, he is likely to engage in further deviant acts.
McGrath (2009) best articulates this by stating that people act in a manner that reinforces their label. As such, those who have been categorized by the society as deviant, or those who view themselves as deviant, most likely end up acting in the way that society expects them to (McGrath, 2009).
Labelling Theory’s View on Criminality
According to the labelling theory, being labelled has an effect on the sense of self. An Individual who engages in deviance might do this for various reasons that do not include his self-identity. However, once the person is labelled as a deviant, his perception of himself changes from normal to deviant.
With this newly formed identity, the person begins to define and think of himself in terms of the deviant label he has been given. Becker (1963) theorizes that the deviant status obtained from breaking a rule becomes a master status. The individual is therefore doomed to be a deviant first and any other status consideration will take a secondary role. Such a person is likely to engage in crime since he already views himself as a criminal.
The Labelling Theory further reveals that not all people labelled as deviant may have broken societal rules. Labelling by society is sometimes generalizing and a person can be labelled as a deviant when they have in fact not engaged in any deviant act yet. Becker (1993) observes that because of being publicly labelled as deviant, individuals go to the next logical step, which is engaging in career deviance.
The labelling theory also proposes that the deviant label makes it more likely that an individual will engage in other kinds of crimes in addition to the crime for which he was initially labelled. Plummer (2000) corroborates this view by observing that when a person is apprehended for one deviant act, they are predisposed to taking part in other deviant behaviour since they will be regarded as deviant by the society and are more likely to engage with other similarly labelled people.
This argument is supported by facts surrounding the US Juvenile Justice System. In the mid 1990s, governors all over the US proposed sending of juvenile offenders to the adult system in order to reduce crime through deterrence. Data indicates that the young offenders who went through the adult system left the correctional facilities with a higher propensity for committing crime due to the label that they acquired (Clausmeier 2007).
The stigma attached to the label also has implications on the social behaviour of the individual. A study by McCarney (2002) found that the status of being an ex-criminal has a negative influence a person’s future employability and causes a loss of social status. In addition to this, individuals with criminal records are stereotyped and regarded as criminals even though they served their sentence and therefore paid for their past misdeeds.
In most cases, the former offenders have been reformed and are ready to be productive members of the society. However, the attitude and treatment they get from the society leads them to transform their identities to fit the deviant label (Slattery 2003). Due to this, the individual is more likely to engage in criminal activity either to make a living or as a way of lashing out at the society.
The Labelling Theory suggests that the criminal justice system would benefit greatly if sensitivity to crime and deviant behaviour increased. If this happens, a restorative approach that questions the evidence of punishment and labelling as the best way to respond to crime will be adopted.
Mesmaecker (2010) declares that this approach will alleviate the alienation of the parties within the legal process and greatly reduce the feelings of injustice that the offenders feel. With such an approach, a person who has engaged in crime in the past will not feel obligated to repeat the offense since they do not regard the deviant behaviour as part of their identity.
This paper set out to analyze Becker’s Labelling theory and expound on its views on crime and criminality. The labelling theory explorers the impact that being labelled as an outsider may have on the individual. It reveals that the outsider status causes one to engage in anti-social activity since society already expects them to do so.
The paper has analyzed how labelling leads to an increase in crime since otherwise normal individuals form an identity that conforms to the label attached to them. When they have been labelled, these people come to believe that the label is true and they therefore adopt the deviant identity and invariably begin acting in deviant ways.
From the labelling theory, it is evident that the society is responsible for the prevalence of crime since it turns individuals into deviants by labelling them as such. It is therefore possible for crime and criminality to be alleviated by reducing the instances of labelling and treating former offenders in a civil and social way.
Becker, H 1963, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York.
Clausmeier, D 2007, “Child criminal justice”, Journal of Quantitative Criminology 18(1): 171-173.
Judith, B & Tina, M 2003, “Child and Adolescent”, Social Work Journal, 20(2): 85-98.
McCarney, W 2002, “Restorative justice: International approaches”, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 3 (1): 2-13.
McGrath, A 2009, “Offenders’ Perceptions of the Sentencing Process: A Study of Deterrence and Stigmatisation in the New South Wales Children’s Court”, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 41 (1): 24-46.
Mesmaecker, V 2010, “Building social support for restorative justice through the media: is taking the victim perspective the most appropriate strategy?”, Contemporary Justice Review, 13 (3): 239–267.
Plummer, K 2000, “Labelling theory”, Historical, Conceptual, and Theoretical Issues, 1(1): 191-194.
Regoli, R 2009, Delinquency in Society, Jones & Bartlett Learning, NY.
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