Labelling Theory

.. s created as a way of looking at a general area of human activity (1963). However, it is not a theory, with all the achievements and obligations that go with the title, nor is it focussed exclusively on the act of labelling as some have thought. Moreover, Becker does mention some of the criticisms given to labelling theory. For example, he states how interactionist theories have been accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, be the enemy those who would upset the stability of the existing order of the Establishment. In essence, we have already mentioned the suggestion of Erikson that deviance is a necessary part of society, showing the difference between right and wrong, and encouraging the majority of society to toe the line at the expense of the deviant minority.

A further criticism mentioned by Becker is that given by many conservative critics (although other non-conservative critics have also noted this) that is, that interactionist theories of deviance openly or covertly attack conventional morality. Becker acknowledges this, suggesting that intentionally or otherwise, they are corrosive of conventional modes of thought and established institutions. Becker (1967) goes as far as to say that the labelling theorist must side with the deviator, as it is up to the sociologists to remedy unfair situations. However, not all theorists would see the work of Becker and the other labelling theorists as quite so radical. As a matter of fact, many sociologists view labelling theory as an untestable and untrue theory. Furthermore, Becker (1963) acknowledges that his labelling theory is a theoretical approach, not a true theory. As well, Becker suggests that sociologists should attempt establishing empirical tests for his approach.

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The conservative nature of labelling theory was also criticized, specifically by E. M. Schur. He suggested that although the sociology of the underdog is indispensable in the alleviation of the unnecessary suffering of the deviant individual, the labelling theorists are guilty of romanticizing certain non-political deviations and avoiding a truly radical critique of the social system as a whole (1971). However, one of the major criticisms of labelling theory is that it is deterministic.

As a matter of fact, it specifically treats the individuals as if they were no more than passive organisms, herded into behaviour by the act of the labels being given to it. As well, further criticism is given due to the fact that, following behaviour patterns is the mere result of the behaviour patterns being ascribed to it. For instance, Herbert Blumer (1969) suggests that the human being is seen as an active organism in his own right, facing, dealing with, and acting toward the object he indicates. On the other hand, Alexander Liazos (1972) provides for three criticisms based on the work of labelling theorists. First of all, he notes that although a labelling theorists aim is to humanise the deviant individual and show that he or she is no different than other individuals, except perhaps in terms of opportunity. However, by the very emphasis on the deviant and his identity problems and subculture, the opposite effect may have been achieved (Liazos,1972).

Secondly, he suggests 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 type of deviance, what Liazos himself terms covert institutional violence. He suggests that this type of violence leads to such things as poverty and exploitation, the war in Vietnam, unjust tax laws, racism, sexism, and so on.. (1972). However, 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. Liazos also criticises the labelling theorists as they do not consider the extent of the importance of power in their substantive analysis, although all stress its importance.

He says that the really powerful, the upper classes and the power elite, those that could be referred to as the top dogs, are not considered in any great detail by the labelling theorists. A further criticism of the labelling theory is that of Jack Gibb (1966). He questions the success of the labelling theorists in terms of how they interpret the defining of behaviour as deviant, as well as, how much study is actually done in this area. In addition, Becker (1963) goes out of his way to explain the underlying problems of labelling theory. First of all, he suggests that there are not enough studies of deviant behaviour.

He further implies that there are not enough studies of enough kinds of deviant behaviour. Finally, he insists that another deficiency of the labelling theory is that they don’t have enough studies in which the persons doing the research achieve close contact with those that they study, in order for them to become aware of the complex and manifold character of the deviant activity. Becker (1963) also speaks of the difficulty with secrecy. As a matter of fact, in many cases the deviant individual performs deviant acts in secrecy and does not wish this behaviour to be known universally. For example, in the results found by Humphreys in his study of the `Tearoom Trade`, many of the individuals partaking in homosexual behaviour were married with children.

When asked later in questionnaires about their views on homosexuality, very few admitted to visiting the tearooms. RESEARCH BY LABELLING THEORISTS In many cases of deviance, secrecy will create problems when researching. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult for a researcher to observe the deviant individuals in their everyday lives, especially in dangerous areas of society in which there may be problems of infiltration, gaining trust and violent people. It may also be difficult for the researcher to observe impartially, or to continue without being led to either commit the crimes themselves, or to try to prevent the crimes from being committed. An example of this can be seen in Parker’s View from the Boys (1974), where he studied boys in an area of Liverpool.

Parker was able to gain acceptance only because he had previously met some of the boys at a country holiday centre for Liverpool’s deprived children. According to Parker (1974), If I had not been young, hairy, boozy, willing to keep long hours and accept permissive standards, the liaison would never have worked. However, Parker admits that his presence affected the behaviour of the boys. For example, on occasions he stopped them from committing crimes and helped them out when they were caught. Another aspect of labelling theory in which Becker outlines as problematic, is the concept of morality.

He questions a situation where the researcher’s sympathies should lie. He contemplates on whether one should side with the underdog or simply judge criminal behaviour as inherently wrong? He stresses the sociological difficulty of this decision. He claims that the researcher, whether taking either side, will be accused of taking a one-sided and distorted view, but how is it possible to see the situation from both sides simultaneously (Becker, 1963)? Despite many contributions, the evaluation of labelling theorists is normally considered with an excessive amount of criticism. CONTRIBUTION In attempting to evaluate the contribution of the labelling theorists to the study of the sociology of deviance, it depends on how the theory is viewed. If labelling theory is actually considered to be a theory, its flaws are many. However, if we attempt to consider the theory as a mere way of looking at deviance (as it was intended according to Becker), the contributions are many, as they opened up a whole new study of the individual after he or she has committed an act of deviance.

It is also important to know that, labelling theorists do not merely consider the after-effects of the deviant act, as it is sometimes suggested. For example, in one of Becker’s studies, he considers the individual and how he began to smoke marijuana. Furthermore, labelling theory along with the labelling theorists, will continue in their usefulness as long as deviant behaviour exists. CONCLUSION In conclusion, labelling theory has now spread outside the confines of the sociology of deviance. For example, the imputation of the label `insane` to a person may represent an important stage in the process of becoming mentally ill. Labelling theory has also been used to explain witchcraft. Nevertheless, the theory in its entirety has provided a beneficial development of the sociological understanding of self-conceptions, relationships between deviance, social reaction and social control. Furthermore, after thorough analysis it is evident that labelling theory has proven to be very significant in establishing a relative body of empirical research evidence on the study of crime and deviance.

Bibliography References Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press Becker, H. S. (1964).

The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance. New York, NY: The Free Press Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose Side Are We On?, Social Problems. 14:239-247 Blumer, H. (1966).

Symbolic Interactionism. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Blumer, H. (1969). Sociological Implications of the Thoughts of George Herbert Mead.

Englewood Cliff, New Jersey. Cicourel, V. A. (1968). The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice.

New York, NY: The Free Press Erikson, K. T. (1966). Wayward Puritans. Wiley, NY.

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Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labelling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair. Symbolic Interaction, 20(4):365-385 Liazos, A. (1972). The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts and Perverts. Mead, H.

G. (1962). Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pfol, S.

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