Crime and Criminalisation

A theorist that built upon the work by Lemert was Howard Becker. He saw deviance as the interpretation of meaning as seen by the people who "react" and label the "actors" as deviant. Becker claimed that becoming a deviant was a process that was followed instead of it being due to hereditary factors or personality traits. This "process" follows clearly defined stages: Stage one: This consists of rules being invented by the bourgeoisie and those with the most socio-economic power and control. These "controllers" denounce some values and promote others to benefit themselves, and therefore certain standards are created for society to aspire to.

Stage two: Becker now states that this is when the rules that have already been created are applied and re-enforced. This is when and why acts will be determined as deviant. Stage three: Any individual going against the rules will be spotted and labelled as deviant. Those who are labelled will be delegated through each deviant's social characteristics. IE class/economic status, gender, race and age.

The final stage is the behavioural response the newly labelled deviant will deal with from society.

This behavioural response will change the interaction that the deviant will have with society. For example as a known criminal, the deviant may be observed by the police or in everyday legitimate activities such as shopping. "Some of those who are arrested perceive they are more delinquent after conviction" (Gibbs-1974)

The label will also block areas of legitimate opportunity such as employment which forces the deviant to pursue illegitimate paths and resume criminal activities in order to retain income or in extreme circumstances, some sort of normality. This label that the deviant has acquired is difficult to erase and for society to re-label them as a pillar of the community is near impossible. (Becker H (1963) – Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance) After Becker, The focus shifted from the deviant acts themselves to the process where the individuals were labelled as deviant.

John Kitsuse argued that the reality can be changed and is interpreted differently in various situations and this could decipher whether the individual is to be labelled as a deviant or not. Kitsuse thought that reality was rarely stable, consistent or fixed and this accounted for the different interpretations. Kitsuse saw deviance as a process with three main stages where "The members of a group, community or society interpret behaviour as deviant, define persons who so behave as a certain kind of deviant, and accord them the treatment considered appropriate for such deviants".

Kitsuse also had a number of stages in which society interpret deviant behaviour. The first stage differs slightly to that of other theorists in that deviant behaviour does not necessarily have to have occurred in the first place, there just has to have been an interpretation from society that the unacceptable behaviour did exist at one point.

In the second stage, the deviance does not just have to take one form-many forms can be defined. IE drug addict AND homosexual. Finally, the third stage is not too dissimilar to the theories of Becker and Lemert. It is simply the differential treatment of the individual due to their newly deviant status. (Kitsuse John (1962)-Societal reaction to deviant behaviour: Problems of Theory and method, Vol 9) Differences between the above theorists Briefly, I have observed some interesting differences between the arguments of Kitsuse, Becker and Lemert.

Lemert sees humans as individuals who make choices for themselves and speaks of deviance objectively, whereas Becker argues that the master status label that is formed in the process of deviance holds great importance. This clearly explains how the differential treatment occurs. Kitsuse on the other hand, argues that if deviance is not created, then basically there is no deviance.

Modern Labelling Theories Labelling theories today are poles apart from those that dominated criminological research during the latter half of the 1960's (Although the new theories contain certain element that allow the theories to conjoin).The theories experienced a gradual shift and transformed into ones that accepted and recognised that: "Societies 'create' crime by passing laws" (Hartjen C 1974-Crime and Criminalisation) Criminological perspectives started to fall into that of Sociology of Law and labelling theories that focused solely on state power can be categorised as "branches of conrol-ology"

(Ditton J 1979-Controlology-beyond the new criminology) Briefly, "controlology" refers to a group of theories that include subjects such as moral panics e.g. the criminal justice system is used as social control. This control is a universal belief by modern labelling theorists. Firstly, the definition of a moral panic is "an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality and behaviour of certain groups in society". A study by Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts that was conducted between August 1972 and August 1973 showed possible evidence that a moral panic was "created" by the government and the police (using the media-also owned by those in control) to distract the general public from Britain's dwindling economic status and rising unemployment of the time.

Cases of "muggings" were suddenly dramatised, highlighted and over-reported across this period of time. It was during this time that a specific crime was first labelled a "mugging" and others soon followed. High profile politicians amongst others highlighted the threat that this "new" crime posed to the streets of Britain and it was compared on the same scale as New York (deemed extremely violent).

Hall et al explain that the "muggings" were not a new type of crime at all. Violent street crimes had in fact been reported from as far back as the Victorian times. It was also pointed out that a crime that was reported less than five years earlier which had involved an MP being robbed and violently attacked had not been labelled a "mugging" and was so by definition. According to the police etc, this "new" type of crime was rapidly increasing. In actual fact, according to official statistics under the category "assault with intent to rob", the increase between 1965 to 1972 was only 14%. This was actually lower than the average annual increase (33.4%). So, because of the unemployment of this time period, the national strikes and the demise of the mining industry, the government was no longer able to govern the people as unions were calling for strikes and people were working three day weeks.

The image of the black mugger was therefore created so the public could be distracted from the obvious failure of the capitalist system and be persuaded that the problems of society came from elsewhere. (Hall et al 1978-9- Policing the Crisis) The above study is also an example of the similarities between Hall et al's beliefs and Kitsuse's theory that the deviant(s) are "created" by society (especially those in control).

A complete contrast to the slant of the above perspective is possibly Katz's "Moral Seduction Theory" in which the causes of crime are constructed by the offenders themselves and not derived from the problems of society (as above). A brief example includes: Crimes such as shoplifting, involving the deviant "imputing sensual power" so that being seduced by the object in question is like a "romantic encounter". The deviant receives feelings of thrill and has the opportunity to be privately deviant in public places.

The problem that criminals encounter is "the transcendence of chaos" which serves as an addiction and the final arrest when the deviant is caught is sometimes seen as a relief. (Katz J 1988-Seductions of crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil) A more modern theory that "follows on" from the arguments of the likes of Becker etc is Braithwaite's "Reintegrative Shaming Theory". Braithwaite looked at the process of shaming which he sees as a form of social control. He argues that there are two types of shaming. The first type is reintegrative itself, where the offender is brought back from deviance and into the fold of society and the second is disintegrative. This is where the offender is shunned for good (i.e. he is unable to remove his deviant label, in agreement with Becker).

Braithwaite argued that disintegrative shaming creates a class of outcasts and his views are extremely consistent with other labelling theorists. He suggested that offenders are often stopped from re-entering legitimate society and become more deeply involved with crime as a result. He also maintains that reintegrative shaming can only be effective if there were ceremonies or gestures of forgiveness by society. Braithwaite also points out that society has many "ceremonies" to demote people to deviant status (i.e. trials) but there are none to remove the deviant status.

(Braithwaite J 1989-Crime, Shame and Reintegration) Policy limitations and implication of Labelling Labelling theory has been criticised for being too simplistic and that the suggestion that attempts to control crime, actually makes the problem worse is perhaps short sighted, seeing is we would live in a state of anarchy if there weren't any attempts to enforce some sort of law and order. A key criticism is that the theorists do not attempt to go into any detail about why people decide to delve into primary deviance and then why some people go on to secondary deviance and others do not.

Also, the individuals that are labelled in these theories usually come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and those in control of society are blamed for the labelling of the proletariat. This completely ignores white collar crime e.g. fraud and embezzlement which is going against the norms and laws in our society and therefore they are seen as acts of deviance. From reading about labelling, it seems that this area is not even taken into account, let alone explained. Also, gender is largely ignored and labelling theories to my knowledge do not explain domestic violence. I.e. A man can be deviant by abusing his wife or vice versa and yet they are not labelled as such and can still be successful through legitimate means.


Looking at the theories, although some are proclaimed out of date, it seems to me that some of the arguments are actually relevant to today (if only partly). For instance, it seems to me that the Hall et al study of mugging is extremely similar to the recent moral panic we have experienced after the Birmingham shooting. The moral panic could have been used to temporarily distract the public from situations such as the fire-fighters strike and the forthcoming war against Iraq, as Blair was not receiving the public support he wanted in order to govern the country.

Also, it could be argued that asylum seekers are being labelled as terrorists to distract us from various socio-economic problems. Also, the labelling belief that a deviant act is not universally defined as such could be used to explain the campaign to legalise cannabis because some people see this as deviant in this country, but in Holland where people turn a blind eye to marijuana users, it would be seen a more of a normality.

Obviously as I have highlighted in the above section, there are limitations. In a capitalist society, it surprises me that commonplace white collar crime is overlooked and some of the explanations used are quite simplistic and not fully explanatory. E.g. there is no in-depth explanation for what actually causes primary deviance. It would be helpful if this could try to be explained by both psychological and sociological arguments to create a fuller understanding. I would also like to see some literature (if it exists) on how the labelling perspective relates to paedophilia and the moral panics that surround it.