Labeling and Deviance Labeling Theory

Labelling is present in many areas of sociology, and crime and deviance is no exception. It involves a ‘label’ or categorisation being applied to someone or to the social group of which they belong, either rightfully or wrongfully, which can have detrimental or positive effects. Various institutions label social groups, some believe it is done predominantly by the police, mass media and judiciary system. By exploring aspects like moral panics, arrests, and laws passed by the judiciary, we will establish to what extent these institutions do label these social groups as deviants and/or criminals.
Labelling theory is a theoretical approach derived from symbolic interactionism, which looks at the consequences of having a particular social typing or label placed on an act, group or person. What the labelling theory alerts us to is the way in which the whole area of crime is dependent upon social constructions of reality – law creation, law enforcement and the identities of law breakers are all questionable. The media composes a key element of creating these social constructions.
When considering reports of crime on television for example, they are thought to help create or inform people’s perceptions of crime, and of which social groups are deviants and/or criminals. There is also a problem when defining ‘criminal’ and ‘deviant’ because it depends on the individuals own perceptions, there is no universal definition. The relationship between the media and crime when concerning labelling theory is emphasized by a concept known as a moral panic. The idea of a moral panic can be defined as outrage stirred up by the media in reaction to a particular social group or issue.

Sociologist Stan Cohen in his study of the ‘mods and rockers’ first adopted the term. Since the media had a lack of new stories around that time, they caused these two groups to be classified as ‘folk devils’, meaning that they were the subjects of the moral panic and seen as troublemakers. Due to the extensive media coverage, young people were classified or ‘labelled’ as either ‘mods’ or ‘rockers’, and some internalised the label and were actually violent. Consequently, this helped to create the violent stereotype that the ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ were supposedly famous for.
This confirmed the media’s image that they were troublemakers to the public. Becker examined the possible effects upon the individual of being publicly labelled as deviant. It is a ‘master status’. The youths were stigmatised and given this label by the media as deviant troublemakers, so eventually come to see themselves as being deviant – their master status. All other qualities become unimportant, and they person is responded to solely in terms of their master status. If someone is labelled as criminal for example, this largely overrides their status as parent, neighbour, friend etc. nd others only respond in terms of the label. The police may also target the youths on once this moral panic occurs, so the may change their behaviour to avert punishment or stigma.
Discussion of the area concerning the police’s role of applying these deviant labels to social groups is also an interesting one. Since there are significantly higher rates of imprisonment of blacks than their proportion in the population, the issue is important when considering race. The Metropolitan police, for example, reported that 37% of those stopped were from ‘ethnic minorities’, where as they form 20% of London’s population.
There are higher rates of stop and search among black and Asian youth than among white youth. Arrest rates of alleged offenders were also significantly higher for those of Afro-Caribbean origins than whites. A study by Walker suggests that, although there may well be police bias in stops and arrests, statistically the difference in arrest rates is so high that the only way this could explain the discrepancy in the figures would be ‘to arrest black people more or less at random and charge them falsely’.
Blom-Cooper and Drabble argued that black defendants are likely to be charged with more serious crimes than white defendants when the actual offences committed are similar. For example, black defendants are more likely than other groups to be remanded in custody. Stephen Lawrence is an example, of a black person being treated unjustly by the criminal justice system. Four white people were accused of his murder, but were not found guilty. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the case, as the Metropolitan police were accused of tampering with the evidence so it was inadmissible in court.
The question is, had it of been four black people murdering a white person would the case have had the same outcome? In reviewing this evidence, it seems that the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system is very unsatisfactory. It seems the police are labelling the blacks as deviant, concentrating policing in the inner city areas where the majority are. The judiciary system already has preconceived ideas about blacks, and this affects the amount that are arrested, prosecuted and put on trial in the courts.
Some would say that black youths have even developed their own subcultures, as a form of resistance to capitalism and negative labelling. From a Marxist perspective, youth are the social group that are under the least control by the bourgeoisie. They do not pay taxes or have mortgages, like the working-class do. Since the youth then find it hard to legitimately achieve the high societal goals, they develop ‘magical solutions’ via youth subculture. In the same way, blacks have found themselves marginalized from white society, and in response have developed their own subculture resisting capitalism and often turning to crime.
They are essentially ‘driven underground’ by the labels the media and police apply. Another social group that the media and police can be seen to ‘drive underground’ is the subculture of drug-takers. This is a good example of how the police label this social group as deviant and a problem to society. In a study by Parker, he found that the drug-takers regarded their activity as being wholly innocent and consisting of just ‘having fun’. Another interesting aspect is that the drug-takers come from backgrounds that just do not fit the media’s stereotype of a deviant criminal.
Parker discovered in his study that drug-takers are mostly middle-class, in full time work or further or higher education. Furthermore, there is little if any violence and most clubbers were reported to feel ‘completely safe’. It is thought that the media and police’s labelling of this social groups is a little extreme, and is resulting in the culture being driven further underground. Another instance of this media labelling surrounds the case of the death of Leah Betts, when she died after taking an ecstasy tablet on her 18th birthday.
The media claimed she was ‘poisoned’ by the drug, called for tougher legislation and their was a lot of outrage stirred up by extensive media coverage. After various tests, it was then revealed that the pill she had taken was virtually pure and she had kidney failure from drinking too much water. It seems that sadly, the only person responsible for her death was herself, and the pill was perhaps just there at the wrong time. It was also revealed it was not the first ecstasy pill she had taken.
After the moral panic and the way the media amplified the situation, it turns out there is little supporting evidence for their claims. Perhaps this subculture is not as deviant as the media make out, even classifying drug-taking as a subculture is questionable since millions of ecstasy pills are sold each year and their use if widespread. A confidential survey of pupils’ behaviour in a representative sample of 20 fee-paying schools showed 43 per cent of pupils in the lower sixth form (aged 16-17) reported experimenting with drugs and one in eight said they were regular users. Illegal drug taking is no longer limited to a disaffected and rebellious few. It is part of the culture of teenagers. They do not believe it is as dangerous as we say it is.
Even where they recognise the dangers, they are not deterred believing that most enjoyable activities involve some risks,” the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) said. A 19-year-old who left a private sixth form college last summer, and was previously at a fee-paying boarding school in London, talks about drugs and school. He says “From the age of 14 upwards, about 50 per cent of us were smoking marijuana at lunchtime.
And I can’t think of anyone from my sixth form who hasn’t tried drugs. ” There have been many other moral panics as well as drug takers that have le to the stigmatization of various groups by the media and police. One such case that stigmatized young people was the murder of James Bulger. Two 11-year-old boys in Liverpool from a shopping mall abducted James Bulger. He had massive injuries inflicted upon him, which resulted in his death and he was left on a railway line. The deviant act committed by the children dominated newspaper headlines and stirred up public outrage.
The murder was portrayed by the media as a horrific act, which symbolized the degeneration of modern British society, despite the fact that statistically such murders were extremely rare and the UK, though not unique. When Mary Bell aged 11 years old murdered two toddlers in 1968 there was no such moral panic, and seemed to be largely ignored by the press. The media used the Bulger case to symbolise all that was wrong with Britain, they focused on the difference between innocence and evil and why we as a society had allowed it happen, it suggested the increase of public indifference, lowering family values and increasing isolation.
It generated massive public guilt, and since predicted a breakdown of societal values and cohesion. There was a significant focus on child crime, as people searched for answers to this tragedy. The group’s stigmatization was further fuelled by polices claims that juvenile crime was on the increase and young people were out of control, breaking the law due to insufficient penalties for their delinquency. This prompted demands for tighter controls, curfews for young people and stricter laws.
However, other statistics showed that juvenile crime had indeed dropped, these were dismissed by the authorities because claiming the figures a misrepresentation and only appeared so due to a reduction in numbers in the juvenile population. There were also calls for stricter controls on violent films as it was reported by the media that the boys may have been influenced by the film Child’s Play III though there is little evidence in place to support this argument.
Overall, it seems the police; mass media and judiciary do label social groups as deviant and/or criminals. From the above examples, we can see cases where this happens with a resulting effect of alienating or categorizing a social group in a negative light. When the powerful institutions do seem to label, it does however largely depend on one’s definition of criminal or deviant, but the powerful institutions can be seen to play a part in creating this definition.

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