Labelling Theory

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Labelling Theory

Read the following passage and consider what it can tell us about the nature of deviance:

'One day an outbreak of wailing and a great commotion told me that a death had occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. I was informed that Kima'i, a young lad of... of sixteen or so, had fallen from a coconut palm and killed himself... I found that another youth had been severely wounded by some mysterious coincidence. And at the funeral, there was obviously a general feeling of hostility between the village where the boy died and that into which his body was carried for burial.

Only much later, was I able to discover the real meaning of these events. The boy had committed suicide. The truth was that he had broken the rules of exogamy, the partner in his crime being his maternal cousin - the daughter of his mother's sister. This had been known and generally disapproved of, but nothing had been done until the girl's discarded lover - who wanted to marry her and felt personally injured - took the initiative. This rival threatened first to use black magic against the guilty youth, but this had no effect. Then one evening, he insulted the guilty youth in public - accusing him in the hearing of the whole community of incest and hurling at him certain expressions intolerable to a native.

For this there was only one remedy; only one means of escape remained to the unfortunate youth. Next morning he put on festive attire and ornamentation, climbed a coconut palm and addressed the community... bidding them farewell. He explained the reasons for his desperate deed and also... a veiled accusation against the man who had driven him to his death, upon which it became the duty of his clansmen to avenge him. Then he wailed aloud, as is the custom, jumped from a palm some sixty feet high and was killed on the spot. There followed a fight within the village in which the rival was wounded...

If you were to inquire into the matter among the Trobrianders, you would find... that the natives show horror at the idea of violating the rules of exogamy, and they believe that sores, disease and even death might follow clan incest. This is the idea of native law, and in moral matters it is easy... to adhere to the ideal - when judging the conduct of others or expressing an opinion about conduct in general.

When it comes to the application of morality and ideas to real life, however, things take on a different emphasis. In this case described, it was obvious that the facts would not tally with the ideal of conduct. Public opinion was not outraged by the knowledge of the crime to any extent, nor did it react directly - it had to be mobilised by a public statement of the crime and by insults being hurled at the culprit by an interested party. Even then he had to carry out the punishment himself... Probing further into the matter? I found that the breach of exogamy - as regards intercourse and not marriage - is by no means a rare occurrence, and public opinion is lenient, though decidedly hypocritical. If the affair had carried on quietly with a certain amount of decorum, and if no one in particular stirs up trouble - 'public opinion' will gossip, but not demand any harsh punishment. If, on the contrary, scandal breaks out - everyone turns against the guilty pair and by ostracism and insults, one or the other may be driven to suicide.'

Labelling Theory

Source: Bronislaw Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, 1926.

Consider the following quotes. What can they tell us about the nature of deviance?

Social labelling theorists are adults who can no longer be taken in by the childish belief that 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me'.

Source: Stephen Box, Deviance, Reality and Society.

'Sometimes I ain't so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain't. Sometimes I think it ain't none of us pure crazy and ain't none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the Majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.'

Labelling Theory

Source: William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.

What do these quotations indicate about the nature of deviance?

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