06/02/18
Here are some observations on the interactionist theory of crime and deviance, otherwise known as labelling theory which is part of the Social Action approach to explaining society. It is a very popular option as far as the examiners are concerned - they love asking questions about it, so you need to know it well. In my view, the theory can be boiled down to three parts (1) What is deviance (and therefore crime)?;(2) Why are some people more likely to be labelled or stereotyped as criminals?; (3) What are the consequences for both the individual and society of this negative labelling?
It is important to know the difference between deviance and crime. Deviance is any behaviour that is disapproved of or regarded as unacceptable or wrong by members of society. Some of this behaviour is regarded as having the potential to de-stabilise society so it has been banned and made illegal through the writing of laws. Crime therefore is deviance that breaks these laws. All crime is therefore deviant. However, not all deviance is crime - you might be regarded as deviant if you steal your best friend's boyfriend/girlfriend or swear in front of granny or have multiple sexual partners but none of these things are crimes.
Interactionists like Howard Becker believe that it is impossible to define what counts as 'normal' or 'deviant' behaviour because these are relative concepts - this means that what is normal for one person may be regarded as deviant (i.e. too different to be acceptable or just plain wrong) by another person.

Becker notes that definitions of normality and deviance depend on social context. For example, note that nudity is perfectly normal in the privacy of your own bedroom and bathroom, in the company of a lover, on beaches which have been put aside for nude bathing etc. Note too how it seems to be ‘acceptable’ for women to be portrayed in naked or semi-naked states on page three of The Sun or in lads' magazines like Nuts but there doesn't seem to be an equivalent media representation of naked or semi-naked men. (Note too that some women think such representations should be defined as deviant and banned).

Some of you may have heard of The Naked Rambler - this is a ex-soldier guy, Stephen Gough, who wears nothing but a rucksack and a pair of boots who is attempting to walk across the UK. He has been arrested now over fifty times and imprisoned accordingly. He is not a sex offender or a threat to the general public but the authorities have seen fit to define his nakedness as deviant and criminal because his nakedness is out of context. This simply means that people do not generally go for a walk in the country in the nude. The Naked Rambler (as the media calls him) believes he is doing no harm and so every time he is released from jail he takes his clothes off and begins walking only to be re-arrested every time. Is he a deviant? Is he mentally ill? Interestingly psychiatrists say he isn't. Should we waste good money putting him in prison? I often wonder if we would react in the same way if he was a woman.

Becker goes on to suggest that definitions of normality and deviance also differ across cultures (e.g. think about the treatment of women in other cultures compared with our own - in the UK it is normal for a woman to go to university and to have a career but in other societies and culture, it is deviant - look what happened to Malala Yousafzai when she insisted on an education in Pakistan). Another example is prostitution - in many societies in Europe, it is legal and in others it is not. Becker also noted that definitions of normality and deviance differ across historical periods (e.g. it was deviant in the UK only sixty years ago for people to have sex before marriage, to be openly gay and to have an abortion - these types of behaviour are more acceptable and therefore 'normal' today).

However, Becker argues that even within the same culture there will be disagreements about what constitutes normal and deviant behaviour, e.g. young people might regard recreational drug use as harmless and normal whilst their parents (as well as the police, the courts and politicians) might see it as harmful and deviant (as well as criminal). Within institutions like prisons, prisoners and prison officers will subscribe to different ideas about what is normal and deviant. Muslims and Christians may also disagree, e.g. drinking alcohol and gambling is forbidden by Islamic culture whereas it is acceptable and normal in UK society as a whole.

Becker concludes that what is defined as 'normal' or 'deviant' is therefore a matter of interpretation and there may even be a number of interpretations attached to the same behaviour. Take killing another human being, for example. Most of us automatically believe that this is deviant and wrong but you may kill in self defence, you may kill or be killed in war (we reward people who kill lots of other people in war with medals of honour!), you may kill by helping somebody with a painful terminal illness to die, you may plan to murder somebody in cold blood, you may kill on behalf of the state and its people by being the person who switches on the electric chair and executes a serial killer; you may kill somebody accidentally by doing something really stupid - and so on. Now notice that killing is no longer the straightforward deviant act that wethink it is..

However, we have laws and a criminal justice system that clearly sets out what is wrong and what is right. In other words, in the writing of those laws, somebody has been given the power to decide what is normal and what is deviant (illegal and therefore criminal) and therefore punishable with fines, prison and even death in some societies. The key concept here is POWER - Becker, therefore, concludes that deviance should be defined as rule or norm breaking behaviour but these rules or norms (which often become embodied in laws in the criminal justice system or taken-for-granted in everyday life) are NOT made by the majority via consensus or agreement.

Rather they are imposed on society by powerful groups or elites, e.g. the rich make rules/laws to control the poorer sections of society which tend to outnumber the wealthy - note that Marxists would have no problem with this observation - they would point to how benefit fraud is treated compared with tax fraud. Note too that female behaviour is controlled by male definitions about what is appropriate (e.g. have you spotted how it seems to be OK for a bloke to sleep around but if a woman does it she is labelled a ‘slag?’. The double standard that operates with regard to sexual behaviour nearly always favours the bloke. One of the reasons why we still have naked pictures of women in magazines is that males have more power to define what is sexually appropriate. Young people's behaviour at home and school is also shaped by rules made by adults - mum, dad and teachers. in some societies, ethnic or religious groups make the rules for less powerful ethnic or religious groups - Nelson Mandela fought against the white-imposed apartheid system in South Africa which segregated blacks from whites and ensured that any behaviour which attempted to change this system was defined as deviant and criminal, hence Mandela's extremely long prison term.

So, to conclude this section, Becker argues that definitions of deviance (and crime) and therefore normality/conformity to the rules/laws do not emerge naturally through common agreement among all of us. Rather they are socially constructed by the actions of powerful groups and imposed on the rest of us whether we agree with them or not.

Part 2: Why are some people more likely to be labelled or stereotyped as criminals? In the previous section, we saw that the powerful make the rules (that are potentially broken thus creating criminals and deviants). However, the rules are enforced by their agents - usually groups of people who work for the state such as: the police, the courts, probation officers, social workers and teachers.

Interactionists refer to these groups as agents of social control because their purpose is to watch/observe people to ensure that they conform to the rules. However, there is another group that also works on behalf of the powerful to do this - the mass media - particularly the journalists and editors who work for the tabloid newspapers. Interactionists such as Stanley Cohen argue that the mass media examines people's behaviour and judges it. Let's illustrate this idea in two ways: (a) Have you noticed that the media (which is mainly dominated by male journalists and editors) is very judgemental about the weight and shape of female celebrities? Newspapers impose patriarchal labels on some celebrity women which suggest they are 'too fat' or 'unattractive' etc. Female celebrities often talk about feeling under very intense pressure to lose weight after having a baby because they do not want the papers judging their bodies or their eating behaviour. So the idea that it is normal for women to be super-slim size zero is constructed by the media. The media label women who do not meet this ideal as deviant. (b) The mass media may examine the behaviour of some social groups and create moral panics around them which puts pressure on politicians, the police and the courts to come down heavily on the group in question.

As I said earlier, all these groups - the police, the courts, tabloid newspapers and so on are engaged in making sure we all conform - that we are socially controlled. However, not everyone can be watched - that is impractical and expensive - so these agents of social control stereotype people into groups, e.g. this group is respectable and hard-working, so therefore, we don't have to pay much attention to them. On the other hand, other groups are more likely to be labelled by agents of social control as potentially more criminal because they are young, male, working-class and black and therefore these agents of control feel that there is a need to target such groups and to frequently stop and search them in order to prevent crime. Numerous interpretivist studies of policing (especially of black people) suggest that the police use racial profiling (e.g. 'driving whilst black' - this means white police officers feel perfectly justified in stopping Black drivers of expensive vehicles because they believe them to be stolen or the product of drug deals). The Archbishop of York John Sentamu was once stopped on the A64 precisely for this reason! Of course what is not taken into consideration by these tactics is that stop and search creates a sense of grievance and hostility among Black and Asian youth who conclude that all police officers are racist or Islamophobic. Stigmatising and targeting such groups has the potential to amplify that disaffection so that eventually relationships between the police and particular communities break down altogether thus causing riots or uprisings. There are lots of studies of the policing of particular communitIes from an interactionist or labelling theory perspective which you should use to illustrate this unfortunate byproduct of policing.

Part 3: What are the consequences for both the individual and society of this negative labelling? Interactionists argue that labelling people as criminal or deviant can be problematic because it can make it very difficult for them to give up that crime or deviance. Lemert focuses on the consequences of being labelled in a negative way. He points out that there are two types of deviance. He argues that primary deviance which is committed by most people has no negative consequences because it goes unnoticed and unpunished. Think about the minor acts of deviance (and even crime) that you carried out especially when you were younger but you got away with it, e.g. minor theft from your parents or a shop. Nobody saw you do it, so nobody told you off for it. No label was attached. However, Lemert argues that there also exists secondary deviance - this is deviance or crime that is spotted by others who usually have more power or authority - there is what Lemert calls a societal reaction to your behaviour ) and consequently it normally ends up with a negative label or punishment being applied.

Interactionists argue that when this negative label is applied to an individual, it can be very difficult to shake off. Once labelled, for example, 'criminal' or 'paedophile' or 'ex-con' and so on, the label sticks despite any best effort to go straight. People generally tend to think the worst and consequently they are not keen to forgive the offender for past indiscretions and misdemeanors. Consequently employers, for example, may not be keen to give past offenders jobs and ordinary people may not be enthusiastic about having ex-offenders in their midst despite the fact that they have served their punishment. Note too that you might have experienced a less profound version of this at school when you could not convince a teacher who thought that you were a troublemaker that you were in fact quite a decent person.

Here's an thought-experiment that I used to illustrate the impact of negative labelling. It was mainly aimed at the females in my classes who tended to outnumber the males 8: 1.
Imagine you are 26 years old and one night in the pub you meet the man of your dreams. He introduces himself to you as 'Tom Harper' You go out with him for a year. He is kind, considerate and very loving. You fall head over heels for him (Wow! This is full of cliches!). After a year you move in with him. Life is perfect. He proposes marriage - you accept without hesitation. The date is set for the wedding. Everyone thinks you've made the right decision - your parents adore him and your friends think he's fit. However - one night you go out for a drink and you notice a man at the bar who keeps looking over at you. Your fiancé goes to the toilet and the man comes over and says 'you know who he is, don't you' referring to your boyfriend. You have no idea what he's talking about. He says 'that's RobertThompson - one of the kids who killed that toddler Jamie Bulger back in the 90s'. You're horrified and insist that he is wrong but when your boyfriend comes back, you tell him what’s just happened. And he says 'It's all true - I've been meaning to tell you but I was trying to find the right time'.................What do you do?

The result of this thought experiment over the years is that 99 per cent of my students have disowned and dumped Poor Tom. Nearly all have said they would be unwilling to forget or forgive his past crime - regardless of the fact that they love him madly, that he has served his time and that he is now a reformed or rehabilitated adult who is extremely unlikely to repeat something he did when he was 10 years old. Now, interactionists like Lemert argue this is how we treat most criminals - we make it impossible for them to re-integrate back into society. We stigmatise (negatively label) and shun them. Consequently they fall back on the company of those who treat them normally - other criminals and deviants. They feel resentful and hostile because of their treatment by the rest of us. And surprise, surprise considering the company they are forced to keep because law-abiding folk like us don't want anything to do with them and the feelings they have, they re-offend and get sent back to prison. A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs - because we think criminals are criminals forever and we disregard the fact that they've paid for their sins and that they want to change. However, we treat them as outcasts - they respond by committing more crimes and our predictions that 'we can't trust them' come true. But interactionists note that it is our social reaction that causes them to re-offend. If we had forgiven them and helped them to take their place in society, in all likelihood they would not have re-offended. So our attitudes towards criminals is causing more crime.

Another possible consequence is that sometimes the label is turned by the criminal or deviant into a badge of honour which they use to gain status from their peers. The deviance or crime is consequently amplified - it gets worse as the person labelled criminal attempts to prove themselves worthy of status and respectfrom others similarly labelled. We can see this happening with those involved in territorial street gangs. And so the problem gets worse.

Finally, interactionists argue that we need to do two things to reduce crime. Firstly, we need less laws - we particularly need to de-criminalise or legalise prostitution, drugs (e.g. the majority of black people in prison in the USA are in for possession rather than drug-dealing) etc. Secondly, we need to stop naming and shaming (negatively labelling, stigmatising, stereotyping and shunning) offenders because this results in the disintegration of their identity and self-esteem. We no longer think of them as human - as a husband, wife, parent, child and so on. Rather we end up seeing them just as a threat and consequently reject them. Braithwaite argues that we should adopt an alternative to disintegrative shaming called 're-integrative shaming' in which we label the act rather than the person and make the offender aware of the consequences of his or her actions. This allows the offender to say sorry for their actions and for members of society to see this and forgive him or her and give them another chance. This hopefully would reduce re-offending rates.