Labelling and Crime
• Labelling theorists are interested in how and why certain acts come to be
defined or labelled as criminal.
• They argue that no act is inherently criminal or deviant in itself- in all
situations and at all times.
• Instead, it only comes to be so when others label it as such.
• It is not the nature of the act that makes it deviant, but the nature of
society’s reaction to the act.
“Social groups create deviance by creating the rules whose infraction
(breaking) constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular
people and labelling them as outsiders”
So…A deviant is simply someone to whom the label has been successfully
applied and deviant behaviour is simply behaviour that people so label.
(think about the man who lives alone)
Cicourel- the negotiation of justice
Not everyone who commits an offence is punished for it. This decision is based
on a number of different factors, including their appearance, background and
the circumstances of the offence they have committed.
Cicourel argues that officer’s decisions to arrest are influenced by their
stereotypes about offenders. For example, he found that the officer’s
typifications- their common sense theories or stereotypes of what the typical
delinquent is like- led them to concentrate on certain types. Working class
areas and people fitted the police typifications more closely. This led police to
patrol working class areas more intensively, resulting in more arrests.
Consequently, their stereotypes were confirmed.
Cicourel suggested that justice is not fixed but negotiable. For example, when a
middle class youth was arrested he was less likely to be charged- partly
because his manner and appearance were less likely to fit the typification of a
criminal held by the police, but also because their parents were more likely to
be able to negotiate successfully on his behalf.
Lemert- Primary and Secondary Deviance
Lemert distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance.
Primary deviance refers to deviant acts that have not been publically labelled.
Lemert argues that it is pointless to try to understand the cause of primary
deviance, because it is both widespread and also usually trivial (e.g. Fare
dodging) and mostly goes uncaught. This type of deviance is not part of an
organised deviant way of life and people don’t make a habit of it. It is often
explained away as a ‘moment of madness’. Primary deviants don’t generally
think of themselves as deviant.
Secondary deviance is the result of societal reaction (labelling). Being caught
and publically labelled as a criminal can involve being stigmatised, shamed,
humiliated or excluded from society. Once an individual is labelled, others may
come to see him only in terms of the label. This then becomes their master
status. For example, the individual is no longer a colleague, father or brother;
he is now a thief or a junkie. When this happens, the master status can help to
create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the individual lives up to the label
they have been given. Lemert refers to the further deviance that result from
acting out the label as secondary deviance.
In turn, the self-fulfilling prophecy may lead to a deviant career, whereby the
person who has been labelled is shunned by their family and is unable to gain
work as a result of their label. They therefore turn to other ‘outsiders’ for
support (which may include joining a deviant subculture), thus confirming his
Young- Hippy marijuana users in Notting Hill
Young uses Lemert’s concepts of secondary deviance and the deviant career in
his study of hippy marijuana users in Notting Hill in West London.
Initially, drugs were not an important part of the life of this subculture; they
used them, but it did not define their identity and it was done in private- an
example of primary deviance. However, once the police had persecuted and
labelled the hippies as drug users, the hippies increasingly saw themselves as
The hippies therefore began to retreat into closed groups where they began to
develop a deviant subculture, wearing longer hair and crazier clothes. Drug use
became a central activity. This therefore invited further attention from the
police, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So…both of these theorists show how it is not the act itself which creates
serious deviance, but the hostile reaction by the audience (who tend to be
the police but could also be wider society, friends or family).
Ironically, the social control processes that are meant to produce law-abiding
behaviour may in fact produce the opposite.
Evaluation of labelling theory:
Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the view that crime and deviance are the product of
labelling processes (21)- page 85 of the textbook. You could have a go at this if you want extra practice! Read
the examiner’s advice at the bottom of the page, too.