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Unlike most theories of crime and deviance, which emphasize the causes of deviant behavior, labeling theories focus on society’s reaction to crime and deviance. Labeling theorists argue that society’s reaction to deviance is fundamental for three reasons. First, individuals who are labeled as deviant by society often become stigmatized and isolated from society, leading them into a deviant lifestyle. Second, the very definition of deviance lies not in the objective behavior of ”deviants,” but in powerful groups’ ability to define and label the behavior of the powerless as deviant or criminal. Thus, deviance is socially constructed. Third, society’s reaction to deviance provides positive functions for society by defining the boundary between deviant and conventional behavior and by reaffirming social solidarity.
Lemert (1951) used the term primary deviance to refer to harmless initial acts of deviance, and secondary deviance to refer to deviance resulting from the negative effects of labeling. Labeling theorists have identified many examples of secondary deviance. For example, because of the stigma of their arrest records, ex-prisoners have difficulty getting jobs, finding affordable housing in good neighborhoods, and finding non-criminal companions, all of which impedes reentry into conventional society. Mental patients institutionalized in mental hospitals are stripped of their identities and forced to adapt to a custodial environment, which can hamper their attempts to recover. The poor are sometimes labeled as lazy and slothful, which can undermine their self-esteem and attempts to secure and maintain jobs.
Perhaps more than any other theory of deviance, labeling theory takes seriously a social constructionist view. Rather than assuming that deviance and crime are objective behaviors ”out there” to be discovered, labeling theorists argue that deviance is socially constructed through an institutional process involving politics and the legal system, and an interactional process involving the powerful applying of labels to the powerless. As a social construction, then, deviance is relative to a given society and historical period. Out of the nearly limitless variety of human acts, societies settle on a small range of acts to label as deviant; most entail harm to others, but some entail little harm. The relativity of deviance is underscored by labeling theorists’ definition of deviance.
A hallmark of labeling theory is the observation that labels are not distributed equally in society, but rather are disproportionately applied to the powerless, the disadvantaged, and the poor. This begins with the creation of rules that define deviance. Labeling theorists argued that generally the powerful succeed in creating rules and laws outlawing behavior that violates their self-interests. Thus, rule creation is a result of group conflict in society, in which the powerful have a distinct advantage. Becker (1963) showed how moral entrepreneurs, typically drawn from the ranks of the middle and upper classes, create moral crusades by mobilizing disparate interest groups to outlaw behaviors that violate their common interest. Classic examples include the Marihuana Tax Act, prohibition, sexual-psychopath laws, and the creation of the juvenile court.
In sum, labeling theory has shaped how we view deviance and crime in society by underscoring the importance of society’s reactions to deviance, analyzing political power and deviant labels, and showing how labeling can amplify deviance. Left for dead in the 1980s by some researchers, labeling theory is enjoying a revival by researchers responding to Becker’s (1973) call for an interactionist theory of all aspects of deviance, including primary deviance, labeling, and secondary deviance.
- Becker, H. S. (1973) Labeling theory reconsidered. In: Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press, New York, pp. 177—212.
- Lemert, E. M. (1951) Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. McGraw-Hill, New York.