Labelling Theory and Deviance

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Labelling and deviance in the media

Tabloid papers are renowned to label anyone with what one sees as a deviant label. Newspapers, magazines and even news reporters are either vocally or publishing such labels to a person or group who they have decided is of a deviant nature or differs in some way from what they deem as normal. Examples of such labels will follow later on in this report of how the media label people who they deem deviant or in fact just differ from the norm, and in turn, our society who either accept this label or even attach another. This report will aim to show who attaches the label and what the label means in terms of the person carrying the label and how labels can be negative and therefore damaging. This report will indeed include historical influences, however a more modern day approach and way of thinking will also be applied to bring labelling into the 21st century and understand where the labelling process and the deviant to which it is presented to now sit in our society. Howard Becker has been seen to be one of the pioneers of the ‘labelling theory’, his book, ‘Outsiders’, holds a quote which is now widely used across the academic spectrum when studying labelling and deviance, “…. social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the 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 behavior is behavior that people so label.” (Becker 1963:8–9). This quote is used timelessly even in today’s modern world, as others try and prove if this is in fact true. If we so label a person do they become that label? This report will neither prove nor disprove this theory, however, it will try to evidence is there is any truth in it.

Many theories surrounding the labelling theory can still have some relevance in today’s society. Kitsuse (1962 cited in Holstein:2008)“the processes by which persons come to be defined as deviant by others”. This endeavours to see if or what is deviant and by whom thinks it to be. Our media in Britain label such deviants, but who is assigning the label, and are they qualified to do so? Edwin Lement came up with the theory of primary and secondary deviance. Primary being the initial act of what we call deviance and secondary being, Lement (1951 cited in Holstein 2008) states, “When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization.” As Becker stated before, a person who is so labelled deviant could in fact become that label. This is as relevant today and maybe even more so than it was 60 years ago, with our expanding media and communication rotes to the wider society. In today’s media we often see or hear about so called ‘yob culture’, mainly young males who ‘terrorise’ their local communities. One article in the Daily Mail was published recently, headlining, “Let off again and again, the boy branded the most out of control child in Britain at 4 who became a rapist 19 years later” (Daily mail. Online) The article describes Wesley Gordon and his family with a variety of labels to suit the picture the newspaper want to depict, “Branded the ‘biggest brat in Britain’ after being expelled from school for pouring custard over a dinner lady when he was four, he has been in constant trouble ever since.... The young tearaway became a...
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