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The Use of Labelling Theory in Criminal Justice

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The labelling theory is one of the anti-positivist approaches that became prevalent in the 1960s, through the two leading sociologists Howard S Becker and Edwin Lemert, for which they then became known as labelling theorists. These theorists set themselves against any previous sociological ideas of deviance and put forward their main argument that deviance is not produced by strains in the social structure or by bad neighbourhoods, but that people break the law because they have chosen to do that through their own free will. This idea was first brought about by David Matza in his book On Becoming Deviant, however was pushed further by Becker and Lemert when they drew attention to the agents of social control which are the people who define who is deviant in our society and who is not. These labelling theorists also looked at how the criminal justice system (CJS) and the agents of the CJS such as police officers, court officials and judges themselves define and construct crime and delinquency. Lastly the labelling theory states that deviance is not a quality of the act that infringes social rules as no acts are naturally deviant rather deviance is an outcome of symbolic negotiation between rule-breakers and agents of social control. This essay will summarise and evaluate labelling theory in its application to the analysis of crime and criminal justice.

One of the factors of labelling theory is interactive processes, these conceptualise how labelling processes creates deviance. These processes include stigmatisation, master status, self-fulfilling prophecy, and career deviance. Stigmatisation happens when rule-breakers are publicly identified and labelled by the public as being deviant, however if we are publicly labelled by the state as deviant make society perceive us as only having the properties of the negative label rather than the other identities or statues that define us such as being a parent or professional worker, through this stigmatism we cease to have a variety of identities and are seen as simply delinquent and criminal mad. The concept of a master status revolves around people who have been negatively labelled to begin with seeing themselves in terms of that stigmatising label, which could cause the ‘deviant’ to accept this negative label, and that could become a controlling identity, as a consequence of this it could lead to worse deviant behaviour. Thirdly by having this label we may be ostracised by our friends, family or colleagues, which according to Becker is likely to lead us towards further deviance as we become estranged from society, this is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. An example of this ostracization would be someone who has been convicted of selling drugs may be forced to return to their old ways as a result of lack of finding employment that would pay the bills. Lastly comes this idea of career deviance where the deviant is compelled into a career that is seen by society as deviant because it forces them into the company of other outsiders. As a consequence of these four factors the labelling process has made the occasional rule-breaker into the fully fledged criminal. A way this has been shown to be in practise in society is through the study of Jock Young which was a study of marijuana-using hippies in Notting Hill, it was found that the local police had very negative views about the hippie community, this meant the police took every opportunity they could to crush the illegal drug use and place the community under surveillance. Young stated to the researcher that the approach taken was completely counter-productive as it tended to band together the hippie community. This shows the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy in real society aswell as demonstrating the themes and processes that the labelling theory describes and accounts for.

A further element of the labelling theory is understanding what society is, this is also known as social ontology. Labelling theorists say human beings are highly creative and imaginative creatures that have free will, this free will comes with the concept that our minds give us freedom to choose how we act even if the choice is made with uncertain constraint. This means we all have the freedom to create our own moral beliefs and views, for this reason modern society is seen as highly individualised and diverse aswell as being the type of community which works with this individualism and encourages it. As a result of the emphasis on this diversity it also means that deviance falls under this and is seen to be ubiquitous or widespread. Due to this it is inevitable that much of our behaviour will stray outside the strict rules of the legal system, however an implication of this is that it is simply part of being a human being to bend and sometimes break the rules. From this idea in society, according to labelling theorists, it is not merely the poor who commit crimes as certain criminologists thought in the past, rather everyone can up to a point. This concept of social ontology, or social reaction leads into answering the question of what are the “causes” of crime?

Labelling theorists claim there are two types of deviation; primary and secondary, Lemert distinguishes between these two types of deviance. Primary deviance is an act that has not been publicly labelled as deviant, these are the acts many of us commit from time to time without getting punished and these deviant acts are often unserious and trivial. On the other hand, secondary deviance are the acts of deviance that result from the public labelling process, this form of deviance happens when we become ostracized from society and are forced to act as outlaws linking back to the concept of career deviance. When looking at primary deviance Lemert states there is little benefit in looking for the causes of this type of deviance as essentially everyone will have impulses towards rule-breaking during their lives, furthermore primary deviance exists due to the rich diversity of human behaviour, which as a consequence will break the bonds of any attempt to box it in. Differently according to labelling theorist’s secondary deviance is crucial as it is a larger proportion of the problem. This is because of the negative social reaction creating a class of socially excluded individuals through stigmatisation who band together and are likely to organise their lives and identities around criminal activities as shown in the case of Jock Young. The issue that arises from secondary deviance is that the criminal justice system transforms the occasional rule-breaking of ordinary citizens into chronic delinquency and criminality. All of these issues lead to complications within the CJS such as overcrowding, or targeting certain groups within the community, for example manual workers are 14 times more likely to be goaled than professionals, and black people are 9.5 times more likely (than white people) to be stopped-and-searched. The solution labelling theorists say to this “crime problem” is through decriminalising ‘victimless’ crimes, too much law and order directed at particular sections of society actually produces more serious and anti-social forms of crime, it is also irrational and dysfunctional as the prisons don’t work and criminals end up reoffending until they are turned into hardened criminals. The idea of decriminalising ‘victimless’ crimes would reform the CJS and leave the prison sentences to those criminals that truly commit the most heinous crimes such as murder or rape.

To conclude, labelling theorists have given us a great insight in drawing attention to the fact that law enforcement and official statistics are selective when it comes to criminal justice.

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The Use of Labelling Theory in Criminal Justice. (2023, February 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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