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Labelling Theory for Understanding Youth Crime

Outline labelling theory and consider its usefulness in understanding youth crime and anti-social behaviour in Britain today.

Labelling theory claims that deviance and conformity results not so much from what people do but from how others respond to those actions, it highlights social responses to crime and deviance Macionis and Plummer, (2005).Deviant behaviour is therefore socially constructed. This essay will describe in full the labelling theory and comment on the importance of the theory to the deviant behaviour of the youth and the anti-social behaviour of the youth in Britain today.

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The labelling theory becomes dominant in the early 1960s and the late 1970s when it was used as a sociological theory of crime influential in challenging orthodox positivity criminology. The key people to this theory were Becker and Lement.The foundations of this view of deviance are said to have been first established by Lement, (1951) and were subsequently developed by Becker, (1963).As a matter of fact the labelling theory has subsequently become a dominant paradigm in the explanation of devience.The symbolic interaction perspective was extremely active in the early foundations of the labelling theory. The labelling theory is constituted by the assumption that deviant behaviour is to be seen not simply as the violation of a norm but as any behaviour which is successfully defined or labelled as deviant. Deviance is not the act itself but the response others give to that act which means deviance is in the eyes of the beholder. Actually the labelling theory was built on Becker, (1963:9) statement that “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitute deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders—-deviance is not a quality of the act of a person commits, but rather a consequences of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’ The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied.

Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.” The way out is a refusal to dramatize the evil. The labelling theory connects to great sociological ideas of Dukheim the symbolic interactionism and the conflict theory. The theory also draws from the idea of Thomas (1928) that when people define situations as real they become real in their consequences.

Lement ,(1951-1972) distinguishes deviance into primary and secondary deviance in which he described primary deviance as those little reactions from others which have little effect on a person’s self concept and secondary deviance as when people push a deviant person out of their social circles which leads the person to be embittered and seek the company of the people who condone his behaviour.Lement further argued that rather than seeing a crime as leading to control it may be more fruitful to see the process as one in which control agencies structured and even generated crime. Secondary deviance leads to what Goffman (1963) deviant career. This will subsequently leads to stigma which is a powerful negative social label that radically changes a person’s self concept and social identity. A criminal prosecution is one way that an individual is labelled in a negative rather than in a positive way. Stigmatising people often leads to retrospective labelling which is the interpretation of someone’s past consistent with the present deviance Seheff; (1984).Retrospective labelling distorts a person’s biography in a prejudicial way guided by stigma than any attempt to be fair.

No social class stands apart from others as being either criminal or free from criminality. However according to various sociologists people with less stake in society and their own future typically exhibit less resistance to some kinds of devience.Labelling theory asks what happens to criminals after they have been labelled and suggests that crime may be highlighted by criminal sanctions thus sending one to prison may help to criminalise an individual further. Stigmatising young offenders may actually lead them into a criminal career. Howard S.Becker , (1963) one of the earlier interaction theorists claimed that social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitute deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. Furthermore the

labelling theoretical approach to deviance concentrates on the social reaction to deviance committed by individuals as well as the interaction processes leading up to the labelling.

The theory therefore suggests that criminology has been given too much attention to criminals as types of people and insufficient attention to the collection of social control responses. That therefore means the law, the police, the media and the public publications helps to give crime its shape. This is supported by the conflict theory which demonstrates how deviance reflects inequalities and power .This approach holds that the causes of crime may be linked to inequalities of class, race and gender and that who or what is labelled as deviant depends on the relative power of categories of people.Cicourel’s study on Juvenile justice in California, (1972) pointed out that police stereotypes result in black, white class youth being labelled criminal. The conflict theory links deviance to power in the form of the norms and the laws of most societies which bolster the interests of the rich and powerful.

The labelling theory links deviance not to action but to the reaction of others .The concept of stigma, secondary deviance and deviant career demonstrates how people can incorporate the label of deviance into a lasting self-concept. Political leaders recognises that labelling was a political act for it made them aware on which rules to enforce, what behaviour is to regarded as deviant and which people labelled as outsiders may require political assistance Becker,(1963-7).Political leaders went on to produce a series of empirical studies concerning the origins of deviancy definitions through political actions in areas such as drugs legislation, temperance legislation ,delinquency definitions,homosexuality,prostitution and pornography.

Becker, (1963) examines the possible effects upon an individual after being publicly labelled as deviant. A label is not neutral; it contains an evaluation of the person to whom it is applied. It will become a master label in the sense that it colours all the other statuses possessed by an individual. If one is labelled as a paedophile, criminal or homosexual it is difficult to reject such labels for those labels largely overrides their original status as parents, worker, neighbour and friend. Others view that person and respond to him or her in terms of the label and tend to assume that individual has the negative characteristics normally associated with such labels. Since an individual’s self concept is largely derived from the responses of others they will tend to see themselves in terms of that label. This may produce a self fulfilling prophecy whereby the deviant identification becomes the controlling one. This links to the interactionist approach which emphasizes the importance of the meanings the various actors bring to and develops within the interaction situation.

However the labelling theory has its weaknesses which includes Liazos,(1972) who noted that although the labelling theorists aims to humanise the deviant individual and show that he or she is no different than other individuals except perhaps in terms of opportunity. It however by the very emphasis on the deviant and his identity problems and subculture the opposite effect may have been achieved. He further suggested that while considering the more usual everyday types of deviance such as homosexuality, prostitution and juvenile delinquency the labelling theorists have totally ignored a more dangerous and malevolent types of deviance which he termed covert institutional violence. He pointed out that this type of violence leads to such things as poverty and exploitation for example the war in Vietnam, unjust tax laws, racism and sexism. It is questionable whether labelling theorists should even attempt to discuss forms of deviance such as this in the same way as more commonplace individual crimes or whether the two should be kept totally separate being so different in subject matter.

Akers, (1994) also criticized the labelling theory by pointing out that it fails to explain why people break the law while the majority conform explaining that people go about minding their own business and then wham-bad society comes along and stops them with a stigmatised label. The theory fails to explain why the moral entrepreneurs react in the manner described but rather blames society and portrays criminals as innocent victims which is not always the case.

To counter for the negative effects of punitive measures to youth crime and anti-social behaviour the British government introduced the ASBO and ABC which means anti social behaviour orders and acceptable behaviours respectively.ASBO and ABC are recent developments in Britain which were designed to put a stop to anti-social behaviour by the individual on whom they are imposed.ASBO is a statutory creation and it carries legal force where as an ABC is an informal procedure though not without legal significance. Both types of interventions are aimed at stopping the problem behaviour rather than punishing the offender which may lead an individual into a deviant career. The ABC proved most effective as a means of encouraging young adults, children and parents to take responsibility for unacceptable behaviour. These measures are being used to improve the quality of life for local people by tackling behaviour such as harassment, graffiti, criminal damage and verbal abuse without criminalising the offender.

The crime and disorder act (1998) contains the key elements of labour’s new youth justice system which saw the establishment of the youth justice and the restructuring of the non custodial penalties available to the youth court. The government believed that preventing offending promotes the welfare of the individual young offender and protects the public. The youth justice board oversees the youth offending teams which has a number of roles including assessing the risk and protective factors in a young person’s life that relate to their offending behaviour to enable effective interventions to be implemented, providing support to young people who have been released from the custody into the community and early intervention and preventative work both in criminality and anti-social behaviour.

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To further reduce the effects of labelling the British government is tackling anti-social behaviour and its causes by tackling family problems, poor education attainment, unemployment, alcohol and drug misuse. The most successful interventions to be implemented where noted to be those that engage the individual in changing their own behaviour. This is being done ensuring that an individual understands the impact of their behaviour to the community whilst offering the necessary support to conform.

Rather than labelling and criminalising an individual the British government came up with effective advice, councelling and support that enable people who behave anti-Socially to change their behaviour. Perpetrators young and adults have issues in their lives that require the help and support of professional, statutory or voluntary organisations. Issues like money management and debt, communication difficulties with the family, young people struggling within the educational or employment because of offending behaviour and victims of domestic violence can all benefit from available services in Britain today.

This essay therefore concludes that labelling theory is enormously influential in directing attention towards the relative and somewhat arbitrary nature of dominant definitions of crime and criminality in Britain. It also critizes the criminal justice and the agencies of social control for it reflects on the consequences of our social reaction and advocates for changes in public policy on juvenile justice, restorative justice,de-institutionalisation and communitarian approaches. The powerful insights of the labelling theory made the British authorities to rethink again on the tough on crime stance hence the introduction of new restorative measures which does not label or criminalise young offenders. The labelling theory is therefore quite useful in understanding that the rise in the yob culture, gang culture and hoody culture in Britain was a result of criminalising young offenders rather than addressing issues leading the young into crime and anti-social behaviour.



Berker and Howard, S (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance, New York: free press

Goffman, E (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, Prentice-hall

Hall, S (1978) Policing the crisis, The Macmillan press LTD

Haralambos, M and Holborn (1991) Sociology themes and perspectives, Collins education.

Macionis, J and Plummer, K (2005) Sociology a global introduction, Pearson education limited.

Taylor et al, (1973) the new criminology for a social theory of devience, Routledge


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