The labelling theory is a micro interactionist approach, this is because it focuses on how individuals construct the social world through face-face interactions. It recognises the concept of the ‘procedural self’ where ones identity is continuously constructed and recognised in interaction with significant others, this results in the individual’s behaviour, including that related to crime and deviance.
Significant others are those who are in high social power and thus able to dictate influence and actively determine an individual’s life. Such individuals may include police officers, prison officers, politicians, parents and teachers. Feminists would argue however that these are all the males in society, determining and controlling the lives of females, keeping society patriarchal. The influence that significant others place on individuals lives is through the use of labels, the labels aren’t usually based on individual characteristics, more so stereotypes, working assumptions and professional knowledge. For example Cicaurel found that police patrolled working class areas more intensively, resulting in more arrests, this is due to the police’s stereotypical view that delinquent individuals are part of the working class.
Lemert distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance in society. Primary deviance involves minor offences such as vandalism or smoking underage and these acts are usually uncaught or insignificant. However an individual may be caught for such acts and inturn be labelled as delinquent or deviant, the social reaction of this label results in the development of secondary deviance: more serious crimes such as assault or drugs. This therefore illustrates that it is not the act itself but the hostile societal reaction by significant others that creates serious deviance, thus crime and deviance being products of the labelling process. Support for this idea is research conducted by Jock Young on hippy marijuana users. Drugs were associated with hippies which demonstrate primary deviance. Police then labelled and persecuted hippies for their behaviour, excluding them from normal society. AS a result a deviant subculture emerged where hippies retreated into closed groups, grew hair out long, wore eccentric clothes and drug use became a central activity.
Gove argued that there are two consequences of labelling: creation of sigma, modification of self images. Stigma is the negative branding of an individual and refers to the public condemnation and exclusion of the criminal. The media tend to exaggerate the behaviour of such people, causing increased fear and moral panic in society, resulting in avoidance and constantly being treated with suspicion. Becker refers to a ‘master status’ where once a person is labelled all of their actions are interpreted in light of the label and only negative aspects of that individual’s behaviour are focussed on. Because of the stigma created from the label a modification of self image occurs in the individual. The individual essentially lives up to their deviant label, becoming the person described in the label.
The process of deviancy amplification whereby any punishments or treatment therefore reinforce the individual perception of the criminal, thus more crimes fitting to the label are carried out. This theory can however by criticised because it is determinist, where individuals have n control over the process and once they have been labelled they will inevitably turn deviant or criminal. Social action theorists believe in free will and individual’s choice to reject their label. In addition the label may cause the opposite result where an individual seeks to actively prove their label wrong by thriving and succeeding in their work/ life.
Furthermore the labelling theory claims that deviant and criminal behaviour only occurs when a label is given, it does not account for crimes committed by those who have no labels placed upon them. Marxists, for example, would argue the theory fails to explain middle class, white collar or corporate crime, since the offenders have high social power and would be significant others rather than the individuals labelled.
In conclusion although the labelling theory offers some explanation as to the crime and deviance in today’s society there are many gaps. Other explanation such as subcultural crime and deviance would argue that it is not the interaction of individuals but the illegitimate opportunity structures within society that results in crime and deviance.