Labelling: conclusions and examples

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Labelling: conclusions and examples

The following points seem essential to the labelling approach:

Social rules are essentially political products - they reflect the power of groups to have laws enforced, or not.

Law enforcement is selective.

Law enforcement

Agencies of control have considerable discretion. This includes those who through professional status claim the right to label others - teachers, social workers and psychologists.

The existence of crude stereotypes.

Clearly, law enforcement is affected by circumstance:

  1. Who commits the act - is a drunken child more deviant than an adult?
  2. When the act was committed - homosexuality, child abuse?
  3. Where the act occurred - nudity in a bathroom or in the street?
  4. The society/culture in which an act occurs - bigamy/polygamy?
  5. The historical/political circumstances - killing; murder/war/defence/accident?

The attachment of labels has important consequences for how others see a person and how s/he comes to view themselves. With negative labels, a person will need to accommodate to his/her spoiled identity. This spoiled identity is what we term stigma.

The most important step towards being labelled is being discovered. Prior to discovery, a person is not labelled, but indulging in what labelling theorists call rule-breaking behaviour. Such rule-breaking need have no further consequences for the person involved.

Once labelled a deviant it can become increasingly difficult to interact with others in society. The label can attach to the whole identity, not simply the particular deviant act. There is less chance of 'normal' behaviour.

This difficulty in interacting with others occurs for at least two reasons:

1. The impact of reputation: Deviant labels such as thief, queer or junkie are more powerful than other labels. They constitute what Everett Hughes calls 'master statuses'. Other such statuses are those of ethnicity and gender. Unless blocked in some way, these master statuses can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The deviant might find it easier to come to terms with the label than to fight it.

2. The conceptions/expectations of others: Others relate to the labelled person on the basis of the label and the responses come to reinforce the reputation. For example a teacher dealing with the student labelled a 'failure' will not be surprised when the student fails. Indeed, the teacher may well be surprised and suspicious if the student does well!

Teacher and students

The above ideas can be illustrated via the example of drug addiction. Using drugs might not impair a persons working ability, but to be known as an addict could likely lead to the loss of a job. Lets assume that it does. In such cases, the individual will find it difficult to conform to other rules, which they have previously had no intention or need to break - for example, stealing. Since an addict cannot always get drugs legally, they must get them illegally and thus there may be a need to resort to deceit and crime to support the habit. The behaviour is thus a consequence of the public reaction to the addict as a deviant, rather than a consequence of the inherent quality of the deviant act.

Labelling theorists use the concept of the deviant career to chart the stages in the process of becoming a committed deviant. For example; Pittman (1977) the stages in becoming a male prostitute. Marsh, the career structure of a soccer hooligan (The Rules of Disorder).

Institutions (prisons, asylums, boarding schools) are particularly important in the stigmatising process. Institutions are part of the labelling process and operate both to assign a label and have that label accepted by the deviant.

Goffman ('Asylums') argues that the stated aims of institutions of cure and rehabilitation, but that in practice, the institution strives to get the deviant to accept their deviant identity.

Through a series of interactions, pressure is put on the deviant to accept a label. This involves a 'mortification' process, especially on entry to the institution, a series of humiliations that tend to remove all individuality - stripped; deloused; possessions removed; uniform issues; number given. This process is also noted by Rosenhan (Being Sane in Insane Places).

David Rosenhan

The final stage of this process is 'institutionalisation'. Whereby the inmate accepts the label and thereby may become unable to function outside of the institution.

The post-institutional experience of many people is stigmatisation and social rejection, particularly in the case of prisons, but also asylums. The deviant is ascribed a negative identity which in many cases is irreversible.

'The deviant returns home with no proper licence to resume a normal life in the community. Nothing has happened to cancel out the stigmas imposed on him... the members of the community seem reluctant to accept the returning deviant on an entirely equal footing... if the returning deviant has to face the community's apprehension often enough... he may respond to the uncertainty by resuming deviant activity.' (Box)

Box identifies four reasons why an ex-con/inmate may consider that 'going straight' is not an option:

  • Atrophy of interaction skills
  • Social discrimination.
  • Job rejection.
  • Police surveillance.

Labelling may actually increase the amount of deviant behaviour through the process of 'crime amplification'. This is shown in Jock Young's study, 'The Drugtakers'. This part of what is sometimes known as the 'societal reaction' approach and is outlined in the work of Edwin Lemert. Lemert argues that societal reaction is a 'cause' of deviance.

Lemert begins by distinguishing between 'primary' and 'secondary' deviance. Primary deviance is deviance before it is publicly labelled; it has a number of possible causes and is not worth investigating since samples are biased and since it has no impact on the individual, it does not influence status or activities. The common factor among deviants, claims Lemert, is the process of labelling - the public reaction to the deviant leads to secondary deviance, the response of the deviant to public labelling. Lemert argues that secondary deviance should be the focus of study because of its effect on the individual. The central idea is that societal reaction can actually cause deviant behaviour. The example Lemert uses is in 'Stuttering Among the North Pacific Coastal Indians', but perhaps better examples come from the study of 'moral panics'.

The Mass Media play an important role in developing labels by which social problems are publicly recognised. In times of social and economic crisis, the media play an important part in the creation of 'folk devils' around which moral panics develop, generally in the form of 'scapegoating'. A folk devil is a person or group that is regarded as disruptive or dangerous, for example, football hooligans.

Football hooligans

The media play an important role in identifying these folk devils as targets for popular concern and the problem they are seen to present is magnified out of all proportion. The media then launches a campaign against these groups making the public, police and the groups themselves more aware of their existence and hence creating a demand for 'something to be done'.

Cohen shows how societal reaction:

  • Isolates groups and individuals from contemporaries.
  • Provides them with an identity.
  • Promotes deviance amplification.

The media are particularly important in this process since 'over-reporting' leads to:

  • Exaggeration.
  • Prediction.
  • Symbolisation.

Similar processes have been noted by Hall ('Policing the Crisis') as regards 'mugging' and more recently in the moral panic surrounding AIDS.

Clearly, rule creating is also the result of the labelling process. Two things need to be present for the creation of laws/rules:

  1. A set of specific values.
  2. People committed to enforcing them on others.

Becker uses the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) to illustrate the underlying values that lead to the imposition of a tax on marijuana. He identified the following values:

  • The protestant value of self-control and responsibility - people not in full control and therefore in no position to accept responsibility for deviant acts.
  • Disapproval of states of ecstasy - dislike of selfish pleasure.
  • Humanitarianism - abhorrence of anything that enslaves.

These values can be 'pushed' by moral entrepreneurs. Moral crusades, according to Becker, usually involve enlisting the support of interested organisations and developing a favourable public attitude towards a proposed rule. In the case of the Marijuana Tax act the Bureau of Narcotics was the driving force.

Despite the refreshing approach of labelling theory, there are a number of serious criticisms:

  1. There is a tendency to over-romanticise accounts of deviance, which in their concern for the 'underdog' can distort the reality of crime; some of it is pretty nasty.
  2. There is a concentration on marginal forms of deviance. There is no analysis of crimes such as offences against property. Young (1975) says of labelling: 'Indeed it is engaged in an astonishing accomplishment the development of a criminology that does not deal with property crime, and a criminology whose subjects live in a world not of work but of leisure.'
  3. There is a disregard for the origins of deviant behaviour. Hence it is claimed, too much emphasis is placed on the impact of social reaction and thus on the deviants present as opposed to their past.
  4. They over-simplify the process of labelling, and particularly they minimise the role of the deviant in the defining process. Deviants come across as passive victims. The degree of choice and consciousness that actors have is denied them. We cannot rule out the possibility that deviants choose to continue their behaviour because they find it rewarding.
  5. If labelling is so straightforward, then it should be more uniform in its effects. Not only should it always produce negative consequences, but also such consequences should only occur because of the application of the label. But is this the case? Surely the application of the label can result in a decrease in deviant behaviour? Similarly, others can take on a deviant identity and manifest all the features of secondary deviance without any public labelling occurring.
  6. Labelling has been criticised for failing to analyse the structures of power and interest at work in the making of laws and the definitions of 'criminal' and 'deviant'. They raise questions of power but don?t have a structurally based critique. They tend to concentrate on middle level agencies of social control such as the police and the courts.

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