Short Essay on the Labeling Theory of Crime
Howard Becker propounded his Labelling theory in 1963. Before him, Frank Tennenbaum (1938), Edwin Lemert (1915), John Kitsuse (1962) and K. Erikson (1962) had also used an approach called the 'social reaction approach' or the 'social interaction approach' as different from the 'structural approach' used by Merton or the 'cultural approach' used by Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin.
Becker's theory (see, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, 1963) does not deal with the question why a person becomes a criminal but tells why society labels some people as criminals or deviants.
Some men who drink heavily are called alcoholics while others are not; some men who behave oddly are committed to hospitals while others are not. Thus, according to this theory, what is important in the study of deviance is the social audience, not the individual person. What is important in crime is not the act of the individual but the reaction of the society in terms of rules and sanctions.
Kai Erikson has also said that what distinguishes a delinquent from a non-delinquent is not the characteristic found in him but the characteristic assigned to him by others. According to Becker (1963: 9), deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an 'offender'.
The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label. AH experiment was performed in the United States of America (Reid, 1976: 232) in which eight sane persons of varied backgrounds got themselves admitted for feigned mental illness to psychiatric wards of different hospitals in various parts of the country. All gave the same account of their life situations.
All but one was labelled schizophrenic. Once labelled insane, they were presumed insane by the staff that interacted with them daily. This shows that it is the reaction of others which labels an individual in a specific way.
In the case of criminals also, it is the society which brands some people but not others as criminals. If a lower-class boy steals a car, he is branded a 'thief', but if an upper-class boy does so, he is described as a 'mischievous pleasure-seeker'.
In another experiment conducted by Richard Schwartz and Jerome Skolnick in 1962 in the USA, one person with a criminal record was introduced to 100 potential employers with four different versions he was found a criminal and convicted; he was not found a criminal and acquitted; he was found a criminal but acquitted; he was not found a criminal but was convicted.
It was found that employers would not offer a job to a person with a criminal record. Thus, the labeling theory shifted the focus to those who label, that is, to persons responsible for the process of rule-making and rule enforcement.
According to Becker, whether or not labeling occurs depends upon: (1) the time when the act is committed, (2) who commits the act and who the victim is, and (3) the consequences of the act. Thus, whether a given act is deviant or not depends in part on the nature of the act and in part on what other people do about it.
Becker suggests that a distinction be made between rule-breaking behaviour and deviance. Deviance is not a quality that lies in the behaviour itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those who respond to it.
Becker has also suggested that certain types of groups are more likely to be labeled deviant than others; for example, groups that do not have political power and, therefore, cannot put pressure on officials for not enforcing the law, groups which are seen to threaten persons in power, and groups which have low social status.
The official response to the behaviour in question may initiate processes that push the 'delinquent' individuals towards further delinquent conduct, and at least, make it more difficult for them to re-enter the conventional world.
If on the other hand, the individual does not receive official response to his delinquent acts, he may continue committing them while receiving no help in changing his behaviour (Wheeler and Cottrell, 1966: 22-27).
Criticism against the labeling theory is that it employs good logic but does not explain the cause of crime. It entirely avoids the question of causation. Jack Gibbs (1982: 219) has posed four questions.