labelling


labelling
labelling, labelling theory
Labelling theory was a major thrust of the sceptical revolution in the sociology of deviance during the 1950s and 1960s. The orthodox criminology of the immediate post-war period, both in Britain and America, treated a crime or act of deviance as an unambiguous occurrence which could readily be explained as a product of individual psychology or (even) genetic inheritance. Crimes were committed by criminal types-people with particular psychogenetic attributes or socio-cultural backgrounds.
This positivist tradition was challenged by members of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (in the United States) and the National Deviance Conference (in the United Kingdom), who argued that the established criminology was biased because it favoured authoritative definitions of deviance, was overly deterministic in its view of what caused deviant behaviour, and was uncritical of the thesis that the deviant was a particular type of person. The orthodoxy posed only behavioural and motivational questions about crime: ‘Why did they do it?’; ‘What sort of people are they?’; and ‘How can we stop them doing it again?’. Labelling theorists introduced a new relativism into the study of deviance by addressing a number of definitional issues hitherto largely ignored: ‘Why does a particular rule, the infraction of which constitutes deviance, exist at all?’; ‘What are the processes involved in identifying someone as a deviant and applying the rule to him or her?’; and ‘What are the consequences of this application, both for the society and the individual?’
In this way, the labelling perspective can be seen as a development of Edwin Lemert's distinction (in Social Pathology, 1951) between primary and secondary deviance ; that is, between the initial behaviour (which may arise from a variety of causes), and the symbolic reorganization of self and social roles which may occur because of the societal response to any deviation from norms . The leading American proponent of labelling theory was Howard S. Becker, who argued in Outsiders (1963) that deviance is created by society, in the sense that ‘social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labelling them as outsiders’. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application of rules: ‘deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label’. Others (for example, in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1972) developed the proposition that labelling can induce amplification of deviance. That is, attempts at social control may stigmatize individuals by defining them in dehumanized ways (as thugs, acid-heads, or whatever), and have the unintended consequence of encouraging the deviance they seek to eliminate, by constraining individuals to employ a deviant identity as a means of defence, attack, or adjustment to the problems created by the societal reaction. In this way amplification may occur. An act of non-conformity or alleged deviance is defined as being worthy of attention and is responded to punitively; the deviant is therefore isolated from conventional society; begins to define himself or herself in deviant terms, and to associate with others in a similar position, leading to more deviance; which in turn exposes the group to further punitive sanctions by conformists.
Although labelling theory quickly generated an impressive body of empirical studies it was subjected to considerable criticism during the 1970s. The most common complaints were that it ignored the sources of deviant behaviour; could be applied to only a limited range of criminal activities; was too deterministic in its conception of the labelling process; and neglected issues of power and social structure . To those on the political right, the theory seemed tantamount to a claim that many criminals were in fact victims, more sinned against than sinning. It made societal reaction (especially the activities of the police, courts, and other agencies of social control ) the crucial variable. The accusation was often made that this new sociology of deviance seemed more intent on excusing than explaining criminal activity. Labelling theory was particularly vulnerable to this charge since it could be caricatured as offering a crude ‘no deviance, leads to slam on label, leads to deviance’ model of crime. This perception was heightened by the fact that the theory could most obviously be applied to expressive deviance, and for the large part victimless crimes, such as homosexuality, drug addiction, alcoholism, gang membership, and mental illness. The labelling perspective thus became known in some quarters as ‘the sociology of nuts, sluts, and perverts’.
Critics on the political left argued that the theory did not go far enough in its attack on the status quo. By directing attention towards lower-level agencies of social control-the media and social welfare departments for example-it ignored the governing e´lites in whose interests these institutions actually operated. Labelling theorists studied rule-enforcers rather than rule-makers. Their sympathy for the underdog was not translated into a systematic critique of private property and other allegedly repressive and exploitative structures of capitalist societies. Ironically, some of this criticism later emerged from within the National Deviancy Conference itself, among so-called radical criminologists such as Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young (The New Criminology, 1973).
Much of this criticism was undoubtedly unfair and stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding about the aspirations of the labelling theorists. The definitive defence of the theory is’s ‘Misunderstanding Labelling Perspectives’ (in , Deviant Interpretations, 1979). Plummer points out that the labelling perspective was concerned only with the social processes governing the nature, emergence, application, and consequences of labels. For this reason it could easily be accommodated to studies of deviancy conducted from a variety of otherwise incompatible theoretical standpoints. Many labelling theorists worked within the interactionist tradition, which posits that society is constructed via an exchange of gestures, involving symbolic communication and the negotiation of meaning between reflexive actors. This general perspective is obviously consistent with the particular propositions of labelling theory. But some labelling studies were predominantly functionalist, phenomenological , dramaturgist , or ethnomethodological in character. It often transpired, therefore, that critiques of labelling theory were actually critiques of its supposedly irreducible interactionist, phenomenological (or whatever) premisses and propositions. In fact labelling arguments can be accommodated to a range of social theories.
Seen in this light many of the standard criticisms of the theory simply miss the point. Labelling theory does not identify the causes of primary deviance because it does not set out to do so: it offers an explanation of labels rather than of behaviour. Most exponents drew on other sorts of explanations to account for the primary deviance towards which societal reaction was directed. Not even Becker makes the claim that labels themselves are the root cause of deviant behaviour. Nor is there anything inevitable about labelling or amplification. The transition from primary to secondary deviance is a complicated process full of contingencies. Labels may be provisional, negotiable, or rejected. Similarly, it is unfair to complain that labelling theorists ignored large areas of deviant behaviour, since they clearly did not purport to offer a universal explanation for every known form of crime. Rather, proponents made the considerably more modest claim that labelling may alter the direction, intensity, and incidence of the deviant experience. At worst, therefore, labelling theorists can only be accused of setting themselves rather modest aetiological objectives.
Despite many new developments in the study of deviance since the 1970s, labelling theory has remained a prominent influence, especially in North America. Indeed, and ironically (given its radical roots), it may have become something of a new orthodoxy. See also criminology, critical ; deviance amplification ; folk devil ; moral panic ; symbolic interactionism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • labelling — la‧bel‧ling [ˈleɪblɪŋ] , labeling noun [uncountable] when a label is put on something, or labels that are put on something: • The federal government wants to standardize labeling on all packaged food sold in the United States. * * * labelling UK …   Financial and business terms

  • Labelling — or Labeling (US) is defining or describing a person in terms of his or her behavior. For example, describing someone who has broken a law as a criminal. The term is often used in sociology to describe human interaction, control and identification …   Wikipedia

  • labelling — noun [uncountable] current food labelling regulations Thesaurus: process or act of describingsynonym Main entry: label …   Useful english dictionary

  • Labelling — Label La bel, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Labeled} (l[=a] b[e^]ld) or {Labelled}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Labeling} or {Labelling}.] 1. To affix a label to; to mark with a name, etc.; as, to label a bottle or a package. [1913 Webster] 2. To affix in or on a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • labelling — noun Labelling/labeling is used before these nouns: ↑scheme …   Collocations dictionary

  • labelling — ženklinimas statusas Aprobuotas sritis veterinariniai vaistai apibrėžtis Informacijos pateikimas ant pirminės arba antrinės pakuotės. atitikmenys: angl. labelling vok. Etikettierung, f rus. маркировка pranc. étiquetage isp. etiquetado it.… …   Lithuanian dictionary (lietuvių žodynas)

  • labelling — / leɪb(ə)lɪŋ/ noun the act of putting a label on something (NOTE: labelling labelled. The American spelling is labeling labeled.) …   Marketing dictionary in english

  • Labelling — Этикетирование …   Краткий толковый словарь по полиграфии

  • labelling — n. act of affixing labels to something, tagging; classifying, naming la·bel || leɪbl n. ticket; tag; sign; note, slip of paper; nickname; text which appears on a computerized note (Computers); destination of a GOTO command (Computers) v. affix… …   English contemporary dictionary

  • labelling — See: label …   English dictionary