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Understanding The Labeling Theory as Defined in Jack Katz' S Book Seduction of Crime

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Table of contents

  1. Labeling theory
  2. Conflict theory
  3. Strategies used to justify norm breaking behaviour
  4. Societal reaction / consequences of norm enforcement
  5. Total institutions
  6. Stigma and identity management
  7. Structural obstacles

Labeling theory

Instances of the labeling theory in the story are illustrated through Ben’s character. The labelling theory refers to the fact that the labels imposed upon a person will ultimately shape the individual’s self image (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002). In Ben’s case, the label of being a deviant individual was assigned to him by various individuals that hold power and authority in society. This is shown through the fact that Ben was deemed to be a “troublemaker” by the community and authoritative figures in school. Ben took on this label as a young adolescent which led him to commit further crimes such as burglary which led him to being labeled a criminal. Cooley’s “looking glass self” would say that Ben views himself the way he feels others view him (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002).

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Because others view him as a troublemaker, Ben views himself that way as well and takes on the label. Katz’s Seduction of Crime would explain Ben engaging in robberies because of a lack of total control over his life (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002). It could be because his life is totally out of control or it is controlled by the system (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002). Because Ben comes from a low-income family where his parents struggle to make ends meet, it is understable that he feels he has little control over his circumstances.

Conflict theory

Conflict theorists argue that the organized state does not represent public interests but that it represents the private interests of those with enough power to control the operation (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, 2002). The more power that one holds, the less likely they are to be deemed a criminal (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002).

This is seen throughout Ben’s life. Ben grows up in a marginalized neighborhood where his parents are struggling to make ends meet. This shows how Ben and his family have relatively no power compared to potentially the families he robs. Conflict theory is shown when Ben and his friends are targeted by both the school staff and the police. This can be analyzed using Turk’s “theory of criminalization”. Turk argues that criminalization can happens when authority has power and the resistors have relatively little or no power at all (Bernard, Snipes, and Vold, 2002).

In both situations, Ben and his friends had no power whereas the school staff and the police officers had power. In both scenarios, the school staff and the police officers were the ultimate forms of authority in those environments, thus holding all the power. Their power is what made the situations possible. If it was not for the power the school staff had, they could not unfairly target them for their perceived label. If it was not for the police officer’s authority, they could not have been carded unfairly.

Strategies used to justify norm breaking behaviour

Throughout the story, Ben and his friends employ techniques of neutralization. These include denial of injury, condemnation of the condemners and appearing to higher loyalties. When Ben and his friends would steal electronics from rich families, they would consider this non-harmful to the families as they only take items which could be replaced. Denial of injury takes place when an offender insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage to someone (Sykes and Matza, 1957).

They even went a step further by insisting that they did no harm because nobody was home while they were stealing. Condemnation of the condemners takes place when “the offender shifts the focus of attention from his own deviant acts to the motives and behavior of those who disapprove of his violations” (Sykes and Matza, 1957, p.668).

This occurs when Ben, his friends, and older brother are carded for what they feel is no good reason. They feel they are being carded because they live in a low income neighborhood and hang outside apartment buildings and parks. While Ben shifts the attention to the police for targeting him and his friends for no good reason, he ignores the label him and his friends have which may have an impact on the police carding them.

The last techniques of neutralization employed is appearing to higher loyalties. This occurs when one sacrifices the demands of greater society for the demands of their group (Sykes and Matza, 1957). This takes place when the police questioned Ben and he did not give up his friends identities, even if it meant his sentence would be shorter. When it comes to crime, this technique is very popular with respect to being questioned and “ratting” on your friends.

Societal reaction / consequences of norm enforcement

After Ben’s illegal activities were made aware, the media found about the story and many families who had been robbed spoke about the effects it had on them. Garfinkel would describe this as “the offender’s public identity being transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types” (Garfinkel, 1956).

This public degradation ceremony is a way for Ben’s identity to be transformed into that of a criminal because of his actions. With widespread media, this is something very prominent today. The families’ accounts make it more powerful as well. The media’s portrayal of events can cause moral panics and have negative effects on the perpetrator of the crime (Quinn, Forsyth amd Mullen-Quinn, 2004).

Societies reaction to the burglaries led to a moral panic. Cohen would describe this moral panic as a person being defined as a threat to societal values which is manned by right-thinking people and other important people which then submerged or disappears (2011). In this case, by the rich families who have been robbed speaking out, they are helping in creating a moral panic. Families were scared of intruders and children were afraid to sleep in their rooms alone because of the stories in the media.

Total institutions

Towards the end of Ben’s story, he encounters total institutions. Examples of total institutions would be the prison and the halfway house. Goffman defines a total institution as “a place of residence and work where a large number of individuals in the same situation are cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time together to lead an enclosed formerly administered round of life” (1961). It is emphasized that the prison where Ben served his time was far from his hometown which emphasizes how cut off from society it was. This also makes it much more difficult for his family to visit him. Goffman also argues that total institutions strips one of their identity and forces them to take on a new one (1961).

Ben was very used to independence so prison was a big change for him to get used to. It was difficult for Ben to adapt to being an inmate and he was scared. In prison, the guards and inmates have negative views of each other. The staff-inmate split describes how the staff view inmates as untrustworthy and scretvie, and the inmates view staff as condescending and higheneded (Goffman, 1961). Inmates feel inferior while staff feel superior (Goffman, 1961).

This is seen when Ben arrives and connects with a group of “solid cons”. Ben’s dislike of authority figures carried into prison where he shows dislike for guards and any other inmate who was too friendly with them. The halfway house Ben resides in upon release would also be considered a total institution. While in the halfway house, Ben had to stick to the strict norms, rules, and schedules which Goffman deemed an essential characteristic to a total institution (1961). While it is very minor compared to a prison, ex-cons residing in halfway houses can still be closed off to society because of their label.

Stigma and identity management

In the story, the theory of stigma and identity management is brought to light. Stigma refers to an attribute that is deeply discrediting (Goffman, 1963). Goffman asserts that there are categories of stigma; discredited and discreditable (1963). In the story, Ben faces discreditable stigma due to the fact that his imperfections are not apparent through sight (1963).

Ben faces stigma because he has a criminal record. Goffman describes a type of stigma referred to as blemishes of the individual’s character. This means that the individual’s character is affected due to their personality traits, and character attributes that have a negative connotation within society (Goffman, 1963).

Ben’s family faces courtesy stigma which is stigma that a stigmatized person’s friends, family, and acquaintances face because of their relationship with that stigmatized person. While in prison, they do not visit Ben much but send him letters instead. This is their way of not facing courtesy stigma. After his release, seeing his family was also very awkward. While the story does not explicitly say so, after his releases to the community, Ben will continue to be stigmatized by his neighbors, friends, family, and business owners. It will be very difficult for him to reintegrate into the community.

Structural obstacles

Upon his release into the community, Ben will have many obstacles in his way. These obstacles will all be because of his criminal record. Ben will continue to face stigma within the community which will have a negative effect on his self esteem and well being. It will be harder for Ben to get a good well-paying job with a criminal record. This will have an impact on his health, social well being, as well as his financial situation.

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Ben has hopes of getting married and having a family which will also be difficult because of his criminal record. He will face stigma and judgement from people which will impede finding a partner to have children with. A lack of a stable job will also impede having a family. Ben’s self-esteem has never been high but without support from his family and friends, it is at an all time low. Ben is unable to interact with his friends as he does not want to be at risk of re-offending so he goes without support. Being on parole, Ben also faces the risk of going back to prison if he breaks any of the rules which are set out for him. After being released from prison, Ben has to work very hard to reintegrate into the community and go back to a better life than prior to prison.

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Understanding The Labeling Theory As Defined In Jack Katz’ S Book Seduction Of Crime. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 27, 2023, from
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