07/02/18
Evaluation is a really important skill at A-level especially in the second year. Most students think it is about criticism but at this level it is about identifying the strengths of theories too. Exam questions on interactionism are quite popular so I recommend you get to know the theory and its evaluation pretty well.

So what about the strengths of interactionism? Well, for me, its greatest strength is that it tells us that definitions of what is normal and acceptable behaviour and what is deviant and even criminal are NOT written in stone - they are not fixed forever - rather such definitions are often in a state of flux or change. What is normal today might be deviant tomorrow and vice versa.

Another strength of labelling theory is that it shows us very clearly that definitions of what counts as wrong or deviant are the end product of interaction with others. If you commit a deviant act and nobody sees it, you are not labelled by others and therefore you escape punishment. You are not officially a deviant. Think about how many people may have gone through life liked and respected and when they die hundreds of people go to their funeral because they are a well-respected pillar of their community. Now imagine as part of a thought experiment that this very same person might have been a very successful serial killer. However, this behaviour was never suspected or observed. Consequently, this pillar of the community was never arrested and labelled 'a psycho-killer'. Interactionists point out that the label of deviant or serial killer requires observation and negative judgement of a particular activity (e.g. killing) by others. A strength of interactionism, then, is that it points out that labelling deviance or criminality involves a person or group with power observing the actions of a person or group with less power and telling them that their actions are wrong. Moreover the powerful group has the means to punish the less powerful group. No other theory had really made this connection (although Marxism had got close).

This leads to another strength of interactionism which it shares with Marxism. It points out that the law and its agents of social control work in favour of those groups with power. Labelling theory notes that the law is not applied equally to all groups (as most people assume) - rather it is enforced selectively and is often based on prejudice or mistaken stereotypes about which groups are likely to be more criminal. Interactionists therefore lend support to the Marxist assertion that there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor. However a great strength of labelling is that it acknowledges Max Weber's idea that there are different types of status inequality. Consequently labelling theory observes that there is one 'law' for men and another for women. Labelling theory also recognises that some powerful groups will use notions of ethnic, racial and religious 'superiority' to justify labelling other ethnic groups, races and religions as ' inferior' therefore legitimating ethnic cleansing, genocide and repression. Labelling theorists such as Ken Plummer have observed that heterosexual power has for many years been successful in stigmatising gay behaviour as wicked, sinful, disgusting, unacceptable, deviant and so on. In these senses, then, deviance and criminality don't just happen - they are socially constructed through interaction with others. However, as observed earlier, labelling is a flexible process which can be modified as attitudes evolve as we can see in the de-criminalisation of homosexual behaviour, the legalisation of gay marriage and the increasing acceptability of gay people.

Another great strength of labelling theory is that it is the one of the few theories that attempts to see things through the eyes of the deviant and the criminal. Interactionists ask 'what does it feel like to be a deviant or criminal'? 'What does it feel like to have this negative label always hanging around your neck'? 'What does it do to the identity and self-esteem of people to be labelled in these ways'? Very few other criminological theories are asking these questions. However, labelling theory also asked 'what are the consequences if as a society we fail to forgive criminals even when they have served their punishments and are genuinely sorry for what they have done'? 'Why don't we give these people a second chance'? 'Why don't we allow them to lead a normal life'? Interactionists rightly point out that our failure as a society to forgive - to put aside the negative labels - and to encourage criminals to reform - is resulting in more crime as these people re-offend because we refuse to treat them as normal.

So what about the criticisms of interactionism/labelling theory? Ackers argues that interactionists put too much emphasis on the social reaction to the act - remember interactionists argue that you need one group to observe and negatively judge the behaviour of another group. However Ackers questions whether we really do need two groups because the criminal knows in their own mind that what they are doing wrong. They do not need to be told by another powerful group. The successful and uncaught serial killer that I mentioned earlier knows he is a deviant and a criminal because he knows that killing people is wrong. However, although Ackers is making a good point, the fact is we only recognise specific people as deviants when they are spotted, caught and punished. Moreover as Ken Plummer notes, spotting if someone is deviant seems to largely depend on social context, e.g. if the police are not operating in large numbers in middle-class areas, they are very unlikely to spot middle-class deviants whereas if they are stopping and searching young black people in large numbers we should not be too surprised that some young black people are more likely to be labelled criminal or react in a hostile fashion which increases the risk of arrest and confirmation of a criminal label.

One very fair criticism of labelling theory is that it does not convincingly explain why a person becomes a criminal in the first place. It often implies that it is either the fault of the agents of social control (e.g. people become hostile because of police treatment) or it is the fault of society because we are not prepared to forgive criminals but both these explanations are only partially convincing. Interactionists talk about 'power' but they are very vague where it comes from - they identify a range of sources, e.g. class, gender, ethnicity - but their accounts lack detail. Consequently structuralist theories such as functionalism, Marxism and feminism may be more useful in providing explanations such as anomie, blocked opportunities, criminogenic capitalism and hegemonic masculinity as potential causes of crime.

Finally interactionists have been accused of demonising the police and for suggesting that criminals are the victims of an over-zealous criminal justice system. This is probably partially true and it may be a weakness of interactionists that they fail to acknowledge that people commit crime for a variety of personal and social reasons that have nothing to do with the criminal justice system. Labelling theory also ignores the very real physical, psychological and emotional harm done to victims of crime by criminal behaviour.