Labeling Perspectives

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Labeling perspectives, unlike Rational Choice Theories, are based on the premise that crime and criminal behavior are social processes (White 2017:98). In other words, crime and deviance can be explained as the result a social reaction process that individuals go through to become deviants (Moyer 2001:161). It focuses on how individuals typify one another, how individuals related to one another based on these typification’s and the consequences of these social processes (White 2017:98). It also reflects on what constitutes as crime in our society, and the relationship between the offender and those who have the power to label.

The Labeling perspective has many general theoretical assumptions regarding crime and deviance. Firstly, this perspective focuses on the process of individual change from conformity to career deviancy, rather than the organization or structure of society (Moyer 2001:161). Another assumption views individuals as passive agents of their labels, specifically, once the individual has incorporated the prescribed label which was created by social stigma and the labeling process, the individual is unable to control the effects of the label on their actions (Moyer 2001:161). The individual is unable to act with free will as they become victims of their environment. An additional assumption surround the idea that the process is a generated phenomenon, that labels occur over time rather than be directly imposed (Moyer 2001:161). The final assumption is that society creates deviance or crime through a non-consensual political process that may modify depending on who is holding power.

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Two key theorists involved with labeling perspectives are Frank Tannenbaum, who formulated a ‘labeling theory’ of crime that arises from conflicts that happen amongst youths and adults and Lemert who offered a general theory of deviance that incorporate Tannenbaum’s basic labeling process. Tannenbaum argued in 1938, that youth define the situation by viewing themselves as partaking in ‘play groups’ within the community, continuing behavior that originated from then they were younger (Bernard et al 2016:242). As the youths age into teenagers, they begin to participate in more ‘exciting, adventurous, dangerous, and threatening activities’ causing the adults in the neighborhood to become hostile and adverse to the youths actions (Bernard et al 2016:242). At first, adults define the situation as ‘good kids doing bad actions’, however as the conflict continues the definition evolves to view the kids as bad themselves. The next step involves the youth beginning to identify with definitions placed upon them by the adults. This results in the youths acting the part by participating in more criminal behavior, as they now view themselves as being bad. Tannenbaum draws the conclusion that ‘the person becomes the thing his is described as being’.

Lemert adds to this process by arguing that biological, psychological or social factors that exist in a person’s life can be the cause of criminal or deviant behaviors. He refers to those who participate in criminal or deviant behaviors as ‘primary deviants’. These behaviors incite a negative response from others in society. This response involves ‘transforming a negative definition of the act into a negative definition of the person’. As a results, individuals who continue to persist in committing criminal offenses, whether it be because they were unable or unwilling, will eventually incorporate the new negative definition of themselves as they reorganize their self-image. Lemert describes this process as of reorganizing their self-image to incorporate this negative definition, as a self-protective move. This is because it is less threatening to already define themselves as criminals or delinquents rather other people doing so. Individuals who take on the deviant self-image a ‘secondary deviant’. The redefinition of self opens allows the full participation in the deviant career. At this point Lemert argued that criminal and deviant behavior is not longer generated by the various biological, psychological and social factors in the person’s life but is generated directly by the persons self-image.  


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